Monday night I took a breath in, and for two hours was unaware of my body or anything else, except what I saw on television. When the program on PBS concluded, I exhaled for what seemed the first time. Half the Sky, Turning Oppression intoOpportunity for Women Worldwide is a shocking account of violence against girls and women in Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Vietnam. The stories are horrible, as well as hopeful.
We saw the workings of the Rainbo Center, an organization that provides treatment for victims of sexual violence in Freetown, Sierra Leone. No legal consequences exist for men who rape, so women and girls who reside near these men live in constant fear. Men are not held accountable and so, in their eyes, raping becomes acceptable. Girls are afraid to tell their parents because they know they’ll be beaten or even evicted from the family home. Like so many rapes, the victim is ashamed for being forced to have sex and her family is humiliated and ostracized.
The film is so much more than merely a report. The viewer feels part of the stories of actual girls who braved the system and confronted the men they said had raped them. The girls are not actresses. Their sad eyes and frightened faces tell us they are real. In other scenes, laughter and smiles show how far they’ve come in recovery, as they listen to the words of New York Times op-ed columnist and two time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, his wife, Sheryl WuDunn and others, supporting them for their bravery, hard work, or scholastic success.
Women and girls in Sierra Leone, as well as throughout the world, are vulnerable. Deep cultural stereotypes keep them powerless. Attitudes held by men, shown in the film, are similar to views held about slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries in America. The girls are considered property, not people. Their value is only what they can earn for those who own them.
In Cambodia, the organization Voices for Change, run by a charismatic Cambodian woman, Somali Mon, offers hope for the girls rescued from brothel owners. She deals daily with sex slavery, girls bought and sold, even a three year old girl sold to a brothel by her mother. Somali Mon rescues countless girls from brothel owners and as a way to heal them from the brutality of the past, offers love and affection and the opportunity for education.
Sex trafficking is a worldwide problem. It is a business of buying girls and women and then selling them to brothel owners. They’re a commodity – without value as children, only for what they can bring to the man who kidnaps or buys them.
And that brings me to child pornography: Photos of little girls, of adolescents, girls performing sex acts against their will. They’re not posing because they’re making money. They’re posing because if they don’t, they will be beaten or possibly killed. They’re told that members of their family will be murdered if they try and escape.
Whenever I speak with someone who says, “But they’re only pictures,” I know the person hasn’t imagined what life is like for that girl in the photo.
At one point, I thought that way too.
“He didn’t really do anything. He just had pictures,” some people said, defending my former husband when, in 2005, he was arrested, in our home, for receipt of child pornography.
Not until I thought about what such a life would be like — whether posing for pornographic photographs or having as many as thirty ‘clients’ a day, did I understand what a girl would experience. She would be a slave, owned by a man or a brothel, who is disposable if she doesn’t perform as she is ordered.
Men who purchase and view child pornography do commit a crime. They pay money to buy photos, or receive them from someone else who bought them. That one action perpetuates the value of the girl to make money for the man who owns her. It keeps her as a slave.
Governments must pass and enforce laws protecting girls and prosecute those who enslave them. Many cultural stereotypes must change so girls can be protected by their parents as well as society.
Girls and women represent an untapped potential. If we ignore investment in education for girls, we are planning for poverty. We need girls who are safe from violence and educated, to change the world, to heal the world.
Watch http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/half-the-sky/ – part one only through October 8th and part two through October 9th online.