I met a lot of amazing women during the filming of the Half the Sky Movement, women who made me re-evaluate who I think I am in the world and my understanding of myself as a man. I had cause to question my role and actions in our liberal and comparatively egalitarian society and discovered a new perplexing feeling of gender guilt. In truth, many of these women regularly brought me to tears at the realization that an unequal share of the horrors and difficulties that they experienced were at the hands of my male gender.
Not all of the women I met had been exposed to abuse, but all have suffered a disparate strain in their daily lives, whether that be from shouldering an unequal share of the daily work burden or having been deprived of educational, employment or social opportunities due to their sex.
All had risen above their individual impediments in such consummate and caring ways that a lasting question still perturbs my entitled Western mind: Is suffering an essential criteria in the development of such determined brilliance?
I know many people who have risen to greatness without suffering, but few of those exhibit the level of selfless altruism that I was exposed to in meeting the women and girls of the Half the Sky Movement.
All of the young girls I came into contact with during the Half the Sky Movement, without exception, have taken on the roles and pressures of womanhood and overcome substantial obstacles, which entitles them to a generous measure of the world's respect and more right to hold their heads high as an adult and a woman than many far older whom I have met in my coddled modern life.
Of all the accomplished, charismatic and expansive women that I met, the one that had the greatest effect on me, who regularly moved me to tears and still on occasion heavies my heart, was by appearance neither powerful, charismatic nor gregarious. This 16-year-old girl rarely spoke, smiled with great effort and comported her life with a raw seriousness that makes me feel timid and indolent by comparison.
The girl's name is Huynh Thi Nu Nhi. She lives in a decaying, flooded dwelling amongst smart houses by the Mekong river in Vietnam. Her home is one of the most neglected, loveless living situations I have seen even amongst the many slums I have seen in the world. Due to government intervention during filming, which hindered the telling of her story, I am unsure if Nhi will make the final edit of the Half the Sky Movement. In my opinion she is one of its most important characters.
One thing that I repeatedly witnessed with the girls of the Half the Sky Movement was the amazing, encompassing compassion of their family or guardians. Despite poverty, isolation, cultural encumbrances or ignorance, the greater majority of girls had the steadfast and loving support of their carers.
Nhi is one little girl rising above all on her own two little feet.
Nhi lives with her unemployed father and seven-year-old brother in a shared bed in the muddy, cramped workshop which her father ostensibly uses for watch repair. Her father remains well-dressed and carefree despite his dilapidated surroundings; he seldom works, and in his stead Nhi earns money for the family by selling tickets in the local daily lottery.
On returning from school everyday, Nhi immediately goes to work selling tickets in the market. The lottery is drawn at 5 pm and any unsold tickets have to be returned before 4 pm; otherwise she is forced to purchase them. This leaves only a short period in which she can earn money. After 5 pm, she returns to the market to start selling tickets for the next day's lottery. Her father contacts the ticket suppliers to order how many tickets she receives and to find out how many tickets she has sold. On Sundays he orders double. Neighbours have reported that they have seen Nhi beaten if she does not meet her father's quota. She earns about $50 per month for the family selling tickets. She is the family's only reliable source of income.
Nhi's story may sound unexceptional, as many children are forced into labor around the world frequently for no money in worse conditions. Nhi, however, not only works to support her family but returns home late to prepare food, study and school her little brother. She is at the top of her class, and the trifling little money her father allows her to keep for her efforts goes towards treats for her brother and private tutoring so she can gain the best education possible. For a long time she kept the time with her tutor secret in case her father forbade it.
Amongst all the amazing women of the Half the Sky Movement, this little woman, despite the squalor she lives in and the abuse of her father, sustains her family and strives alone against all odds to be the best she can be and the best she can provide for her brother.
Huynh Thi Nu Nhi, in my eyes, not only holds up half the sky but also silently carries the world on her shoulders and still walks forward with a resilience that I may never know.