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'Half the Sky:' Series on exploited women looks to empower

'Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide' is airing as part of public TV's 'Independent Lens' series. The documentary is based on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's 2009 bestseller.

By Lynn ElberAssociated Press Television Writer / October 3, 2012

"Half the Sky" series is based on Nicholas Kristof and wife Sheryl WuDunn's book, examining ways women are oppressed globally and how to empower them through education. Kristof reports during an HBO documentary, June 16, 2007.

Courtesy of Will Okun/HBO

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It wasn't a juicy script that brought together a half-dozen Hollywood stars, including Meg Ryan, America Ferrera and Olivia Wilde. It was the chance to tell the stories of women seeking, and finding, lives unbound by oppression.

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"Half the Sky," a moving PBS documentary series aired Monday and Tuesday (it can be viewed online through Oct. 9), provides unflinching accounts of the worldwide exploitation and abuse that can ensnare women as well as girls. But it doesn't stop short of hopefulness.

The series details efforts to help females escape brutality and poverty through health care, education and economic advancement, sometimes fostered by those who themselves once suffered.

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The extraordinary women featured in "Half the Sky" include Somaly Mam, who was forced into the sex trafficking trade as a youngster in Cambodia and now, as an adult, has created a program to help rescue girls from the life she once endured.

Mam and others like her "underscore that this isn't just an issue of really depressing things happening around the world because, side-by-side with the worst of humanity, you encounter the very best," said Nicholas D. Kristof, whose bestselling 2009 book (co-written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn), inspired the PBS series.

That's what Ryan, who visited Cambodia for the documentary, found in one brave child.

"This little girl had been kept in a barrel and let out to service a man, put back, let out again, and that's her life. She said, 'People say love is hard. I don't think so at all. I think hate is hard. Love is easy,'" the actress recounted.

Ferrera read the book by Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and WuDunn before she was approached for the PBS documentary. She found their work — which includes a "What You Can Do" chapter to encourage reader involvement — a testament to women's refusal to be victims.

"All around the world, women are the ones pulling themselves out of these situations. When I read 'Half theSky,' I would go from complete and utter rage to just smiling ear to ear," said the former "Ugly Betty" star.

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