When I first read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, I was shocked by the stories Nicholas and Sheryl told of systematic rape, genital mutilation, and maternal mortality. As a junior in college, I felt ashamed that I was clueless about what was happening to women in other parts of the world. And I was angry no one had felt like this was an important conversation to have with me until now.
In character with my determined nature, I decided if people weren't going to openly talk to me about this issue, I was going to talk to them and make sure I was heard.
For me, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide sparked an urgency to act.
I wanted to go to the source so I could see and understand the issues women face firsthand. So I decided to graduate college a year early, and with reluctant parental approval and a backpack I was on a flight to Southeast Asia before I even had my diploma.
For six months I traveled through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Nepal. In each country I sought voices and stories. I talked to women and men about the cultural, social, and political norms in their countries. But I was mostly curious about what it was like to be a woman in all of these places and how I could share this with my friends and family at home.
As I traveled, I volunteered with nonprofits, explored urban cities and rural villages, and toured schools and brothels. I made a rule that I would never eat a meal alone, so I was constantly talking to locals, making friends, and asking questions. Sometimes these new friends would invite me to their homes for tea or dinner and I would get to meet their families. And with this immersion I began to realize how deeply rooted these gender issues are and how insurmountable they can seem.
In Cambodia I was doing some grant writing for an HIV/AIDS awareness group and living in a small hotel in the center of Phnom Penh. Each night from the hotel balcony I watched as a group of teenage girls loitered at the street corner. Men would stop their motorcycles and chat with the girls for a few minutes. Inevitably one or more of the girls would hop on the back of the men's motorcycles and return an hour or two later for their next customers. In horror, I watched this go on for several weeks until it sadly became routine.
After dinner one night a Cambodian friend was walking me back to my hotel. We walked right by the group of girls I had been habitually observing each night and one of the girls smiled at us. My curiosity had been festering for weeks, so I smiled back and in English asked what her name was. When there was no response my friend translated my question into Khmer. The girl smiled again and said her name was Chantrea.
With my friend as a translator, I couldn't help but keep asking questions. Chantrea was young and I was so curious how she ended up on that corner. After 10 minutes of light conversation, she had warmed up to us and started talking about her life.
Two years before, Chantrea's own mother sold her to a brothel owner so she could use the money to feed her other five children. Since then, Chantrea had worked day and night without any time off. Sometimes she saw more than 20 customers a day. Sometimes they beat her. Sometimes they were nice and just wanted to talk. Sometimes they had visible diseases and she felt repulsed by them. She was too scared to run away.
After our first meeting, I continued to stop and talk to her on my way home each night, sometimes bringing her food and one time to give her pamphlets about HIV/AIDS. Every night I felt powerless as I watched Chantrea go away with customers from the safety of my hotel balcony. I desperately wanted to rescue her from this situation, but aside from personally coordinating a brothel raid I felt like there was no real way I could have an impact. The only resource I had were my words, so I chose to tell her story on my blog Skirting the Limits.
At the time, I didn't think this was enough. Chantrea's story was one of many I heard from struggling women during my journey. While I continued to write about them on my blog, after six months of traveling I returned to the U.S. disheartened by the scale of the issues women face in the developing world. How could I, one person, change anything?
Now, three years later, I realize the first step to solving the marginalization of women is to make people aware. It's certainly not realistic for everyone to take six months off to travel to see the issues in person, but everyone can read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. We can advocate awareness by telling our friends to read it, and we can all make a difference in our own way, however small an impact we think it may have. So start reading and speak out! Because at the end of the day, we're all part of the solution.