When Meg Ryan agreed to participate in the PBS documentary “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” she wasn’t entirely prepared for what she was getting into.
Traveling to Cambodia, Ryan met Somana Long, a young woman who had been sold into prostitution when she was 13 and who got pregnant shortly thereafter.
“That morning she gave birth to her baby,” Ryan said, “and that afternoon she was expected to service a client. She refused, and they gouged her eye out.”
It’s horrifying. Hard to watch. But the point of “Half the Sky” is not just the horrific trials women encounter around the world, it’s how they rise above them.
“You’ll see in the show this unbelievably beautiful spirit,” Ryan said. “This incredible little face with no eye — this hole in her face from saying, ‘No.’ ”
“Half the Sky” was inspired by the 2009 book of the same title by the husband-wife team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The authors chronicled sex trafficking, maternal mortality, sexual violence and oppression around the world.
“This isn’t just an issue of really depressing things happening around the world,” Kristof said, “because side by side with the worst of humanity, you encounter the very best. So you have people who reinforce the human capacity for forgiveness, for altruism, for courage, for bringing about change.
“It’s possible to come back from the brothels in Cambodia really feeling pretty good about humanity.”
Kristof himself has made some individual efforts. Like when he spent $350 to buy two young girls out of a Cambodian brothel in 2004. And he readily admits that Half the Sky is advocacy journalism.
“Essentially, we wrote the book and we did this [documentary] not just to inform people, but, hopefully, to build a certain sense of outrage and a sense that one can make a difference,” he said.
“Sheryl and I have found that, in general, we don’t become engaged with these issues because we learn about them intellectually. It’s because of the encounters we have, the people we meet, the experiences we have or, ideally, the shows we watch.”
Oscar nominee Diane Lane said she got involved with the documentary after reading the book. She traveled with Kristof to Somalia, where 1 in 12 women dies in childbirth due to poor nutrition and the effects of female genital mutilation.
Lane said she was inspired by Edna Adan, the former foreign minister of the autonomous Somaliland region, who has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of women.
“I never thought I’d be standing there cutting an umbilical cord in her hospital,” Lane said. “But thank you for that experience. And it will live with me forever.”
America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) traveled to India, where it is estimated that 90 percent of sex workers’ daughters follow them into prostitution — and there are an estimated 1.2 million child prostitutes. She met Urmi Basu, an upper-class Indian woman who was so appalled by this she has devoted herself to helping girls and women escape the cycle.
“Urmi had a choice to lead a very different life and walked through an alley and saw a need,” Ferrera said. “She could have walked out of that alley and never looked back and no one would have blamed her. But instead, she saw a need and realized that she had the potential to meet that need, and she did.”
While “Half the Sky” features women in far-away countries, the stories resonate for American viewers.
“These are very extreme stories you’re going to see,” Ryan said. “But the bridge between the first and the third worlds is not as long as we think. Any time I haven’t spoken up for myself, I can see the same thing in the eyes of a little girl in Cambodia. It’s a human experience.”
And for Ferrera, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Honduras, this is a “there but for the grace of God go I” story.
“It takes very little imagination to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” she said, “or at least see your own children in some of these faces and say, ‘What’s the difference between me and that person other than I got lucky and they didn’t?’ ”
“Half the Sky”
P The two-part, four-hour documentary airs Monday and Tuesday from 8-10 p.m. on KUED-Ch. 7.
Episode 1: Eva Mendes travels to Sierra Leone to investigate gender-based violence. Meg Ryan visits Cambodia to expose sex trafficking. Gabrielle Union visits Vietnam to promote literacy and equal education for girls.
Episode 2: Diane Lane visits Somaliland, where maternal mortality reaches 1 in 12. America Ferrera travels to India, where 1.2 million children are forced into prostitution. Olivia Wilde visits Kenya to see how women entrepreneurs are changing their lives and their communities.