LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t a juicy script that brought together a half-dozen Hollywood stars, including Meg Ryan, America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde. It was the chance to tell the stories of women seeking, and finding, lives unbound by oppression.
Half the Sky, a moving PBS documentary series airing Monday and Tuesday (9-11 p.m.), provides unflinching accounts of the worldwide exploitation and abuse that can ensnare women and girls. But it doesn’t stop short of hopefulness.
The series details efforts to help females escape brutality and poverty through health care, education and economic advancement, sometimes fostered by those who once suffered.
The extraordinary women featured in Half the Sky include Somaly Mam, who was forced into the sex-trafficking trade as a youngster in Cambodia and now, as an adult, has created a program to help rescue girls from the life she endured.
Mam and others like her “underscore that this isn’t just an issue of really depressing things happening around the world because, side-by-side with the worst of humanity, you encounter the very best,” said Nicholas D. Kristof, whose bestselling 2009 book (co-written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn), inspired the PBS series. That’s what Ryan, who visited Cambodia for the documentary, found in one brave child.
“This little girl had been kept in a barrel and let out to service a man, put back, let out again, and that’s her life. She said, ‘People say love is hard. I don’t think so at all. I think hate is hard. Love is easy,’” the actress recounted.
Ferrera read the book by Kristof and WuDunn before she was approached for the PBS documentary. She found their work to be a testament to women’s refusal to be victims.
“All around the world, women are the ones pulling themselves out of these situations. When I read Half the Sky, I would go from complete and utter rage to just smiling ear to ear,” said the former Ugly Betty star.
A woman “can be at the bottom of the bottom and find a way not to just lift herself up but her family and her entire community,” Ferrera said. “That made me really proud to be a woman.”
Ferrera, Ryan, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes and Gabrielle Union took turns accompanying Kristof as he traveled to Asia and Africa to spotlight work being done to change the status of those who “hold up half the sky,” as a Chinese proverb says of women.
The documentary looks at child prostitution in India, sexual assaults in Sierra Leone and maternal mortality in Somaliland where, according to the documentary, one in 12 women dies in childbirth because of malnutrition and the effects of genital mutilation.