Women Hold Up Half the Sky

Last night I saw a movie based on a book called Half the Sky, written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Their work through this book and Nicholas’s New York Times column is an effort to galvanize the world to pay attention to women’s rights all over the world. I could get on my soapbox and provide statistics about poverty, sexual abuse, maternal death, but I think sharing my reflections about one story might be more compelling. Before I do, though, I will share one statistic with you: globally, at least one in three women are beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. Since I myself am among the group of “one in three” (although I don’t discuss it often here), I want to focus on how one woman has catalyzed major change in her culture.

I want to talk about Woineshet, a young woman who was featured in short film directed by Marisa Tomei. She transformed her experience of being brutally raped into a forum for changing her culture for the betterment of women and therefore, also of men. In Ethiopian villages a common practice — which has been upheld by the law — is that of men raping women and girls, who are then usually forced into marriage with their attackers. As a result of making the offer of marriage later, men cannot be prosecuted for their attacks. In one village, about 70 percent of the marriages found their genesis in this practice.

Woineshet was 13 when she was raped. She journeyed two days for a physical exam in order to provide proof for authorities, only to be told that her virginity was in doubt because the wound looked old. Her attacker was arrested and released on bail; then he abducted Woineshet again and held her for a month, forcing her to sign a marriage certificate before she escaped. Before a judge — who suggested that she was fortunate that her attacker wanted to marry her even though she was no longer a “fresh virgin” — she replied to the question of whether she would marry her rapist with the simple answer: “I refuse.”

She has since, with the steadfast help of her father, gone on to complete her basic education and is pursuing a law degree. She has pursued her case through the legal system in order to win the right for women to prosecute their attackers. What is more heartening, however, is her work to educate people to effect change in the culture which supports this practice.

There is a scene in the film where Woineshet has visited a village, and the men and women gathered to hear her story. A young woman who was forced into marriage after her rape spoke about how she felt. She was unhappy; she wanted to have an education; she wanted to be someone; she was angry. Then the man who attacked her — her husband — spoke from his perspective, of how his actions made him feel like a successful man. It is tempting to feel outrage toward him, but instead I felt something else: hope. I listened to this man talk about how he felt at the time, and how he has come to understand how devastating his actions have been. And he offered to apologize to the woman he’d hurt, and kissed her feet. I realize those actions don’t “make it all better,” but that’s not the point. This enlightenment must occur for change and healing to occur. He cannot undo his actions, but he can atone. Person by person, culture changes. Woineshet is an example of resilience and perseverance at the young age of 21; imagine how she might improve the world throughout her lifetime.

Join the movement: Half the Sky. Women aren’t the problem; they’re the solution, along with men.

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2 Comments on “Women Hold Up Half the Sky”

  1. CJ Brasiel Says:

    Kathryn, thank you for sharing this story and sharing the experience of the Half The Sky event. The amazing strength all the women in this book (as well as men) demonstrate to change their situations is incredibly inspiring to me. To do more, to see the potential for more in myself, the potential in every other person, the potential in the world is both overwhelming and empowering.

  2. Jan Says:

    This really is a serious problem across the world. It’s encouraging to see young girls beginning to win divorces after being forced into undesired marriages because of their culture. There is so much that still needs to be done.

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