America Ferrera identifies herself in a number of different cross-sections of humanity: as a woman, a Latina, a Millennial and an American. She lists them carefully, methodically and defiantly. Minutes into our conversation, the 28-year-old star of ABC’s television series Ugly Betty and a host of other movies including How to Train Your Dragon and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants begins exploring such daunting, foreign ideas as India’s caste-system and describes the horrors that transpire within Kolkata’s Kalighat red light district. Her voice cracks slightly.
She is, of course, discussing her involvement in the PBS docu-series Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The project, which originally began as a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning, husband-wife team of journalist Nicholas Kristof and author/businesswoman Sheryl WuDunn, will see a re-release and international broadcast on March 8, concurrent with International Women’s Day.
Ferrera was one of six female American celebrity-activists (along with Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde) who traveled around the world to bring attention to women who are living in oppressive conditions. Accompanied by Kristof, Ferrerea spent eight days in 2011 in Western India with Urmi Basu, founder of the NGO New Light. The secular trust serves as both a shelter and an educational institution for young woman who are impacted by forced prostitution in Kalighat.
According to Half the Sky, approximately 90% of Indian sex workers’ daughters follow their mothers’ paths into prostitution. These women’s fates are predetermined by India’s caste—a social stratification system based on heredity, class, occupation and religion. As Basu explains, “The caste system is totally a water-tight compartment. You are just born into it. You cannot make any movement. … And then generation after generation, all the women in that sub-caste, they become prostitutes. And nobody thinks that it’s unusual, that it’s something horrendous.”
There’s a scene in Half the Sky that shows Basu trying to convey this complicated situation to Ferrera just a few steps away from a line of forlorn children. Ferrera, though seemingly stunned at the time, now reflects, “[Basu] lives in a culture that functions under a caste system and she stepped up … and she dared to engage and reach out and fulfill a need in this red light district. To see the lives that she changed was really inspiring and amazing.”
While in India, Ferrera spent much of her time with two young girls. “They were both benefiting from Urmi’s innovation, but had very different situations at home,” she begins. Sushmita, around 13 years old, lived at New Light and went to school because “her mother was incredibly supportive and understood what sacrifices had to be made for her daughter to have a different future and would do anything for it.
[Monisha, 10] was in a situation where her parents were a little more beholden to family obligations. Monisha really lived in danger of going down a similar path to her mother and her aunt and her grandmother before her—either trafficking or prostitution.
“I formed relationships with both of the girls and it was hard to leave them,” she adds. “It was hard to say goodbye.”
Ferrera has been able to keep in touch with both Basu and the girls, as well as continue her activism for the cause back in the States. She and Basu often speak on panels together and communicate through text messages, emails, Facebook and Twitter to stay connected to what’s happening at New Light.
Additionally, Ferrera has donated her time and celebrity to a number of other causes. She served as an Artist Ambassador to Save the Children and worked closely with Voto Latino during the past election. Speaking about her political outreach, Ferrera says staunchly, “I think we as individuals can effect change by staying engaged and holding our elected officials accountable and really paying attention to what the people are doing in government who we put in those position, whether that’s the Women Against Violence Act or whether that’s comprehensive immigration reform or whether that’s allowing a whole generation of dreamers to attend college and give back to this society and not live life in fear right here in our own home.”
But her trip to India with Half the Sky inspired one other notable recent excursion. In 2012, Ferrera traveled to her family’s native country of Honduras with fellow actress Alexis Bledel, Twitter’s Claire Diaz-Ortiz and the ONE Campaign. During this “listening and learning trip,” they toured sites and explored programs that improved conditions for impoverished women and children.
“Just like in India, we saw things that were very disheartening, but we also saw things that were working, solutions that were really making a difference,” she says. “And that, I think, is one of the greatest things about the Half The Sky movement. [It’s about] focusing on what the solutions are and the incredible people who are from inside their communities overcoming these problems.”
The track associated with this story is from Frally Hynes, who lent her music to the Half the Sky movement.