'Half the Sky': Meg Ryan, Diane Lane and America Ferrera help turn women's oppression into opportunity

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The toddler with the chubby cheeks and lopsided ponytail had been sold.

After she was raped at 2, her mother sold her to a brothel. Somaly Mam, an amazing woman who rescued the now-3-year-old, hugs her.

PBS' "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," a four-hour documentary premiering Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 1 and 2 (check local listings), brims with such gut-wrenching stories.

It's not overstatement to say that this is the most upsetting documentary most people will see, and it carries a viewer discretion warning. However, what must be stressed is the positive change brought about by those helping girls and women. PBS has a website, halftheskymovement.org, suggesting ways for people to help.

Based on the best-seller of the same title by husband and wife Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the documentary features actresses Diane Lane, Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Eva Mendes, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde visiting 10 countries in Asia and Africa.

George Clooney introduces the film, explaining that stars can use their celebrity to help raise awareness. And we should all be aware of the horrifying facts, including that worldwide, females aged 15 to 54 are more likely to be killed or maimed by men than by cancer, malaria and war -- combined.

In Cambodia, highlighted in the first episode, sex trafficking is rampant. There, Mam, a former sex slave, started a foundation where that chubby-cheeked toddler and scores of once-abused girls live in a nurturing environment.

"My mission is helping the victim to be a survivor," Mam says. "I want to empower survivors to stand up and say 'no' if they want to say 'no'."

Ryan travels to Cambodia and meets with Mam and Kristof.

A year after her visit, Ryan remains shaken by the girls' harrowing stories. In a setting that could not be further removed, the Beverly Hilton, she says, "Cambodia is a country that still feels like it is staggering to its feet."

Seeing girls who were held captive, abused and forced into lives of unspeakable misery should infuriate anyone who cannot understand how a man can beat and rape a child. The women who defy all odds by helping these girls define inspiring.

meg-ryan-half-the-sky-pbs-325.jpg"What lasts with me is the triumphs, and hearing them sing," Ryan says of the girls, one of whom lost an eye when a brothel owner stabbed her.

In the second episode, Lane travels to Somaliland, where one in 12 women dies in childbirth. Certainly poor nutrition contributes to the mortality rate, but most shocking are the lasting results from female genital mutilation.

Girls are held down, and a village woman cuts off all or part of their genitals. There is no anesthesia. After being stitched up, it makes removal of bodily fluids difficult, sex painful and childbirth often deadly.

Filmmaker Maro Chermayeff finds an older woman who has been cutting girls for years. The woman explains she does so to support her family. In Somaliland, Lane meets a force of nature in the guise of Edna Adan.

"Edna Adan first scandalized her country by learning to read and has been shocking her neighbors ever since," according to the book.

In retirement, Adan opened a hospital with her life savings and with the help of American women. She trains midwives to return to their communities.

"It really is a roll of the dice," Lane says, still visibly enraged by what she saw. "It is shocking to me that a woman can't get an emergency C-section without the permission of her husband."

Lane says she hopes the documentary moves viewers "to be vigilant about maintaining forward motion on true equality in human rights, especially across gender lines. It's hard to enforce when one has upper body strength and the other gets pregnant."

"I think this is going to be one of the things I look back on in my life and am grateful I was a part of," Lane says.

The second night also includes a segment in India. There, Ferrera travels to Kolkata and meets a remarkable woman, Urmi Basu, who ventures into dangerous alleyways to talk to girls about the dangers of prostitution. Basu strives to break the caste system of forced prostitution.

"This can happen anywhere in the world," Basu says. "It can be a 13-year-old girl running away from home, and she does not want to go back to her family. She runs into a group and they say, 'Come hang out with us.' It was a simple act of having a fight with her mom."

"The example Urmi set will stay with me forever," Ferrera says, sitting next to her in the swanky Beverly Hills hotel. "When I am confronted with such a need, I will forever ask myself if I am brave enough to be a woman like Urmi was."

Ryan says she reflects on the girl kept in a barrel for four years, who was freed only to have sex with clients. "She said, 'A lot of people say love is hard. I don't think so. Hate is hard,' " Ryan says.

"Those other hideous stories -- something about the juxtaposition of their innocence," Ryan says. "Innocence, is that renewable? Can you heal? What is the human spirit capable of?"
Photo/Video credit: PBS