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Half the Sky Summary and Insights


The four-hour documentary of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide showed the abuses, discriminations, and human rights violations in Asian and African countries across the world and urges us to witness their plight and help transform their oppressions into opportunities. Based on the widely-acclaimed book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, it follows their odyssey together with celebrity activists to tell stories of inspiring, courageous individuals that would help us realize that the key to progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. Six subjects were highlighted and after each one, powerful world leaders share their insights on the subject matter and suggest ways on finding possible solutions that challenges the world to be aware and be an agent of change to fight for women’s rights.

Fulamutu, a victim of rape and has experienced gender-based violence in Sierra Leone.

The first country and subject highlighted were Sierra Leone and gender-based violence. Statistics show that women 15-44 years old are more likely to die in the hands of men than in chronic diseases. Celebrity Eva Mendes went with the crew and met with Amie Kandeh, Women’s Protection and Empowerment Coordinator, IRC, commenting that while there are villains, there are still heroes in this world that advocate for women’s rights. In the country, children as young as 2 ½ years old and women were raped at an average of 100-200 per month with 90% having STD. There is a myth there that having to take away someone’s virginity is a pride and in terms of accountability, it becomes accepted by society for the rapists do not see the consequences in their actions. One example is the story of a 14 year-old girl named Fulamutu, who pressed charges on her uncle, the town’s pastor for violating her. At first, she was afraid to tell her parents and it was a big decision to go to the police for it was a shameful act. Through the help of Kristof in capturing the alleged rapist, the pastor was arrested, but when it seems that the incredible moment of justice being served was felt, Fulamutu’s father kicked her and her mother out of the house for bringing disappointment to the family. Less than 1% has been convicted in thousands of cases like this, and for proof, the pastor was released a few days after the accusation. It is hard to find legal remedies in rape when the cultural attitude of it is unfortunate but forgivable.

Sex-trafficking is a misnomer in Cambodia; it is more like sex-slavery. Meg Ryan was the celebrity to accompany the crew on its venture to the country, meeting Somaly Mam, Co-founder and President of Somaly Mam Foundation that has the mission to help the victims to be survivors and empower them to stand up and say no if they want to. According to her, everywhere when you are a prostitute, they treat you badly, so through the foundation, they want to show people around the world that they also have dignity. To save women that have been trafficked, the crew successfully raided a military brothel, finding six girls that they would bring to the foundation in an effort to bring back their belief on people. On the foundation, even if it is a community of pain, it is still healing. Mam’s dream is to see the girls to become just like her, and left a statement that if the world will not listen to them, they will keep on talking, and they are not tired at all.

Gabrielle Union, a celebrity activist and Duyen biking through Duyen’s route everyday to school in Vietnam.

Education can change the world and provide for better opportunities in one’s lifetime, but in Vietnam, half the population is living below poverty line where girls drop out of school at 15. Actress Gabrielle Union accompanied the crew and met with John Wood, Founder and Chairman of Room to Read, where they surround girls with everything they need to be successful, improve literacy and give equal opportunities. The stories featured three girls who were supported by the foundation and have different experiences in life. The first girl was a low-performance student back then, but changed her attitude and turned to someone who values education even though she suffers from long hours of commuting through low-maintenance roads and vegetation. To provide for her education, the second girl sells lotto tickets everyday despite her father’s unsupportive nature. She said in an interview that what keeps her going is the thought that if she doesn’t she’ll be selling tickets for the rest of her life. Union also shared her testimony, and what had driven her to be an amazing student is that she had gone through physical abuse, so she focused on school and set her mind to think that education is a kind of healing and a safe haven.  The third girl is lucky to have a supportive father even though she stands as the caretaker of the household. The father said that he has no land to give his children when they grow up, and the only thing he can give them is education, so he does not want his children to drop out. Their passion for education seems limitless, justifying that if one wants something, nothing will stand in one’s way.

The fourth subject is about maternal mortality and in Somaliland, it is said that it is one of the most dangerous place in the world to get pregnant, because women do not even have the basic right to go and see a healthcare professional, and that is a discrimination that often leads to death. Diane Lane is the actress that went with the crew, meeting Edna Adan, Founder of Edna Adan Maternity Hospital that trains midwives and has an ambition to station a thousand all over the country. Through the foundation, Adan wants to plant brilliant seeds of empowering women by training midwives and telling them that women have choices. There is a tradition there that a woman needs to be circumcised, usually done between the ages of 5-8, to lower the sexual drive and keep it under control, and even though Adan went through the same thing, she realized that it must be wrong because her father, a medical health professional, was against it. The tradition is instilled in the locals and it is difficult to abandon, but Adan believes that when there is a practice that is offensive to human rights of women, it should be eradicated and the greatest challenge is to change the stereotypes that exists in many cultures.

The fifth issue is the intergenerational prostitution in India, where it is traditionally accepted and has become a way of life that children just accept it as part of their fate. Celebrity America Ferrera accompanies the crew and met Urmi Basu, Founder of New Light that has training and health programs to encourage children to get schooling and get out of poverty and despair in their lives. Statistics show that out of 3 million women who are trapped in prostitution, 1.2 million are children, and the average age of entry is 9-13 years old. Those mothers in prostitution have little ability to make their daughters aspire for something different because they fear that an educated daughter will abandon and look down on them. The challenge is to make opportunities, to convince mothers that their daughters should not be bound by fate and should allow them to create their own. Ferrera shared that no human being should be selling their bodies for survival, she has something to contribute, and if she would not use that to make other’s lives more enriched, then she is cheating the world.


Olivia Wilde, a celebrity activist with some of the women in Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya.

The last issue tackled was economic empowerment in Kenya, were women were discriminated economically. Olivia Wilde was the celebrity that went with the crew, met with Ingrid Munro, Founder of Jamii Bora, a foundation that helps women to contribute to the economy through establishing their own businesses. Stories of inspiring women were showed, were their determination made their goals attainable and led them to become breadwinners of their families. It also featured a community of a separate village for women, Umoja Women’s Village, and they say that they were not the women society used to know; they were now empowered women. Though they were living in constant danger of being robbed or raped, Wilde shared her comment that this movement is revolutionary and confirmed her hopes that there are some people who think differently about gender relations and business through her interview of a teenage boy that wants to help the community someday. The fastest way to make a difference in the economy is to invest in women, and they are ready to be the solution.

It is time we understand how critical the issues are. The oppression of women in many parts of the world is a devastating injustice that demands moral and political movement to bring it to an end. Some traditions may be seen as oppressive or dangerous to women’s health, but it can become ingrained in a culture that women themselves support them. Some authorities turn a blind eye to those women who were sold into sexual slavery and were beaten and raped if uncooperative, and how most of these women die from the contamination of deadly diseases like HIV and AIDS. Some cultures it is accepted for a man to rape a woman, and how the perpetrators were sure that they would not get in trouble for it is believed that shame will prevent the victim from reporting to the officials. Some states fail to invest in women’s education and healthcare, were instead of women being an asset, just force them to depend on men.

The documentary stresses that we should empower women, because we are not changing a life if we do – we are changing the whole community. It is not a favor to women; it is about all of us and the kind of world we want to achieve. Kristof and WuDunn believe it is important for individuals to speak and resist. Women who are educated and have an income may find a voice in the society, enabling them to help their fellowmen to have the same power. They conclude that if one can dedicate a tiny part of their lives, they can actually be part of the movement. The answer is to bring what is hidden into light and make it matter.


Theories related to the discipline of Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology was seen from the documentary of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In simple words, Anthropology is the study of culture; Sociology, social interactions; and Psychology, mental processes. Many factors like cultural setting, structure of the society, and social conflict can be connected to make it apply to those theories in the three specific fields of study of the subject.

According to Radcliffe-Brown, Structural Functionalism means a society has several institutions like economic, social, political and religious. These institutions ensure solidarity and work for integrating the society as a whole (Scupin and DeCorse, 2012). As an example, the function of a custom or institution of intergenerational prostitution in India is the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the entire system of which it is a part. A child’s parents do not fail to recognize internal social conflict, but believes that societies tend to maintain their stability if they just go on with the structure. In a long-term history of their generation which all the daughters become prostitutes, parents tend to see that the family should be following a certain structure. By giving individuals a sense of dependence on their society, everything is structured and has a function.

Transactionalism focuses on the decision-making and economic-maximizing of individuals (Barth, 1966). By observing how people interact with one another, an insight could be gained into the nature of the competition, values and principles that govern individual’s choices and the way resources are allocated in the society. As an example, the three young girls from Vietnam maintain that education is through voluntary choices by their individual self. It is through them who create social order based on their individual self-interest. In the country, educating women does not seem to be a priority, and it was also because the men there do not like educated girls. The competition between the persistence of the girls to study versus the nature of the society can be an example of an action of Transactionalism which in the end can benefit the girls. It is a productive tool to consider interactions within individuals, as exhibited by the girls to gain what they want.

Cultural materialism (Harris, 1968) explains cultural similarities and differences as well as models for cultural change within a societal framework consisting of three distinct levels:  infrastructure, structure and superstructure. Thus, it promotes the idea that infrastructure, consisting of “material realities” such as technological, economic and demographic factors influences the other two aspects of culture.  In the documentary, examples of these realities are the power of women who have a say in the economic world and how their material conditions contribute to human culture. The “structure” sector of culture consists of organizational aspects of culture such as domestic and kinship systems and political economy, which is exhibited by how the system treat a woman with respect when she has a voice in the society through her business. The “superstructure” sector consists of ideological and symbolic aspects of society such as religion. In the economic empowerment part in the documentary, the last sector was not entirely highlighted, but it focuses more on the structure sector. Cultural materialists believe that technological and economic aspects play the primary role in shaping a society. The success of women led to a different treatment and perception in the society by men. Also, their organization of a separate village influenced the structure that has its roots as a response to the practical problems of society.

Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. For a person to “grow”, they need an environment that provides them with genuineness, acceptance and empathy and viewed the child as having two basic needs: positive regard from other people and self-worth (Rogers, 1951). In the documentary, the foundations were the environment that helped the individuals to realize their worth. Through the advocates and actions of the head and members of those foundations, a person can be provided the much-needed affections that they may or may not have experienced before. It is believed that a person possesses a free will or personal agency to pursue things that will help him achieve his full potential as a human. Some parts in the documentary, like the dreams and ambitions of the girls and women to lift themselves out of misery were examples. Qualitative research is also useful for humanistic psychology studies at an individual level like diary accounts and open-ended questionnaires to find in depth how a particular person think or feel, as exhibited widely in the movie through accounts of the celebrity activists and counselling methods of the officials.

In Psychoanalytic theory of Freud, it is believed that the mind is responsible for both conscious and unconscious decisions based on drives and forces. Freud (1923) later developed a more structural model of the mind comprising the entities id (instincts), ego (reality) and superego (morality). One of the examples is how the girl in the topic gender-based violence on Sierra Leone reacted when she was raped by the town pastor. In their society where rape is unfortunate but forgivable, no one tells the authorities what happens because it is believed that it will bring shame to the family. The girl wants to bring justice to herself to satisfy her id but she does not want to tell anyone because of her superego. In the end, she ended up telling her friends first to have a compromise and later, proceeded to tell her parents. The clinical applications in the country also applied to the theory because it helps the clients to bring about major change in their perspective of life. The therapies that the officials give the victims can surely have an impact because there is a tendency for a trauma because of some childhood experiences.

Sociocultural theory focuses not only how adults and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place. According to Vygotsky,

every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. (1978).

In the documentary, it is believed that when you come from a brothel, you do not have dignity left and people look down on you. That belief and attitudes of people surrounding women led them to be determined to learn to say no when they do not want to and also teach other women that they control their life. The cultural attitudes of men who abuse women also led them to teach the practice of safe sex. When the cultural beliefs influence them and society impacts their individual development, only then can they influence their peers.

Positive psychology is concerned with understanding and facilitating happiness and well-being, positive traits and engagement in absorbing activities, and the development of meaningful positive relationships, social systems, and institutions (Lopez & Snyder, 2009; Seligman, 2002). One example of this theory exhibited in the documentary is when the women of Kenya moved to a village they created because those in the outside tend to abuse and degrade them. With the common sentiment and understanding, they sought to facilitate their own happiness and well-being through the development of a separate social system. Because happiness is a cause of good things in life and good things feature being autonomous, competent, and connected to others, people do things to lead better lives.

Functionalism in Sociology draws its inspiration from Durkheim (Durkheim & Coser, 1997) that interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. It emphasizes the consensus and order that exist in society, and disorganization of the system leads to change because societal components must adjust to achieve stability. As an example, the function of education for society is that it prepares individuals to enter workforce and therefore, maintain a functioning economy. Those are the same views by the people in the foundation and by knowing the functions of elements in the social structure, one can understand social life. Societies maintain stability to continue existing and should be assumed to work together naturally to maintain social equilibrium. Though educating a woman is not viewed as an important asset in their country, it still contributes to the maintenance of the society and the presence of foundations would help a country to sustain a stable system.

In Conflict theory, Sears (2008) said that societies are defined by inequality that produces conflict, rather than which produces order and consensus. This conflict based on inequality can only be overcome through a fundamental transformation of the existing relations in the society. He expanded that the disadvantaged have structured interests and once they are assumed, will lead to social change. In the documentary, women do not have the basic right to go see a healthcare professional which is a discrimination that leads to death. This has been going on for long, until an individual got out of her comfort zone and started helping other people to do the right thing. The social change, rooted by inequality in the system, was what persuaded her to transform the existing relations in the society and also vowed to change the stereotypes that exist in many cultures, referring to the circumcision of women, which she also is against. Though it is a tradition that is difficult to abandon, it is argued that it is something that can be overcome with proper education and bringing change.

Symbolic Interactionism refers to the character of interaction as it takes places between human beings, and their response is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions (Blumer, 1994). The definition of the situation people create is the answer on why people interpret one another’s behavior. As an example, the circumcision of women is due to the people believing that it is for keeping the chastity of the girls and to lower sexual drive. They are informed of the risks and the pain, yet it projects an image of an obligation because it is traditional, instilled in their culture. Even the fundamental aspects of our social experience like gender can be connected with this theory. Gender is a social construct on what we believe to be true that help us decide on the modes of interaction and determine the meaning of a person’s words or actions. This just shows that reality is a social construct produced through social interaction.

These are some of the anthropological, sociological, and psychological theories that can be associated in the documentary. Many diverse subjects were presented. The examples were mainly about women and how their certain acts can be connected to the theories highlighted. Also, the institutions that can be connected to the theories just shows that everything and everyone has a role in the society. Whether it is social, political, or economical, women’s empowerment, if given the opportunity to grow, might get them out of the cycle of oppression. When everything and everyone has a role, every corner in the world can raise a voice to contribute to make others’ lives more enriched. Everyone has a social responsibility and if exercised right, can be absolutely essential to the betterment of the community and can also reflect who we are as people.


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Photos taken from:

Half the Sky & Social Documentary Transmedia






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