It might seem odd that such a poetic (and true) quote sprang from the lips of Mao Tse Tung, a man who made it his mission, among other equally obnoxious endeavors, to obliterate femininity. But “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” is also a famous book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and the name of a foundation that works to empower women in the developing world, whether through micro-loans in Africa, combating prostitution and enslavement in South East Asia or generally drawing attention to the plights of women worldwide (www.halftheskymovement.org).
“Women Hold Up Half the Sky” is now also an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center. Calling it an exhibition is a stretch as there are no artifacts per se to admire – rather, it’s an interactive experience ranging from personal stories of women around the world, either read on banners, watched on monitors or listened to with headphones to notes visitors are invited to write with a wish for a woman and, above all, an encouragement to start making a difference.
Being an avid reader of Mr. Kristof’s column in the New York Times, nothing at this show shocked me or surprised me: the rapes of women in Congo, the death from childbirth in Africa for lack of care, the enslavement of little girls sold to brothels, vaginal mutilations – it’s all there, together with uplifting stories of women who were able to overcome their grim situations and have moved on to make a difference in their communities, or the doctors who established clinics in needy parts of the world. Maybe a drop in the bucket but the bucket gets filled one drop at a time.
It’s not difficult to understand that part of the solution for impoverished countries is to give women the confidence to participate beyond child rearing. A micro-loan helps start a business that can grow and employ more family members, education will turn little girls into teachers or doctors. A woman with children is less likely to gamble money away or spend it on booze at the end of the week and often the family money is safer in her hands. There are hundreds of different ways to see how women contribute to the welfare of a family, a village and, ultimately, a country if empowered, one step at a time.
What did strike me, though, were the stories of immigrants enslaved closer to home, here in LA: essentially sold to employers as maids or nannies, foreign women without means, education or papers were paid as little as $150 a month for gruelling 14 hours day of work, for years. It’s all documented there and more prevalent than I ever thought.
At the end of your excursion, don’t miss the pop-up store set up in conjunction with the exhibition – handmade products and crafts from all over the world await you, and really pretty and tasteful at that: shawls, scarves, toys, jewellery, beaded animals, all lovely gifts that come with a little certificate of provenance and a story behind it. From one woman to another.