‘Girl Rising’: Empowering women globally through education

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Suma was sold into servitude at age 6. While her four brothers were sent off to school by her mother each morning, she was sent away from home permanently to labor for a “master” as part of the Nepalese Kamlari system.

Educate girls, change the world. (Photo courtesy 10x10)
Two girls walk to a Room to Read affiliated school near Kathmandu in uniforms. The Kamlari system of indentured servitude has made it difficult for women in Nepal to receive an education for years. (Photo courtesy 10×10 Educate Girls, Change the World)

She worked at minute tasks for endless hours under the watch of an often-abusive master to provide a small sum of money to send back to her family each year. The priority of Suma’s education was second to that of her brothers because she was a girl.

Suma eventually escaped the Kamlari system after six years of servitude and isolation, but she could hardly speak her native language because she had received so little education. However, with the help of Room to Read‘s Girls’ Education program, the trajectory of Suma’s life was completely changed in 2008.

She is expected to graduate from secondary school in 2014 and hopes to become a health teacher so she can ultimately help educate and empower other girls like her. She is her own master now.

Suma’s story is not unique. Millions of girls around the world today are deprived of education, and the time is ripe for that statistic to change. A new film by Academy Award-nominated director Richard Robbins, “Girl Rising,” shares Suma’s inspirational story and the stories of eight other girls from countries around the world who have fought for education and the empowerment it promises, despite difficult circumstances. It will be screened in Provo April 4, 11 and 22 if enough people reserve seats for each showing.

Although it tackles a heavy issue, Robbins said he did not want “Girl Rising” to be a depressing film, but a motivational one.

“The whole thrust of the film is to try and capture the way the girls make you feel, which is inspired and enthusiastic,” he said.

Robbins said the idea behind the film began when he was introduced to a study about the power of educating women in 2006. He was moved by the study and shocked to see that so few people were aware of the lack of education available for women around the world. He said he could not get it out of his head, and it was what ultimately led him to take on the film.

“The most exciting thing about girls’ education is also in some ways the most depressing thing about girls’ education; so little has been done,” Robbins said. “It’s really ripe for us to make real change.”

Each of the nine girls included in the film was coupled with a journalist from her home country, who worked with her to condense and write out her story. Robbins then used those stories to design the screenplay, which was narrated by renowned female actresses and singers including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Alicia Keys.

Many of the girls played themselves, acting out their own stories in the film. However, actresses stood in for two girls, Yasmin from Egypt and Amina from Afghanistan. Even though they wanted to share their stories, showing their faces publicly in the context of promoting education for women could put them in physical danger.

The film illustrates that educating women is the remedy to many global issues, including human trafficking, AIDS and child marriage. Statistics presented in the film, read aloud by Liam Neeson, state that 80 percent of all human trafficking victims  and 75 percent of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by the disease, are women and girls. Fourteen million girls under 18 will be married this year, but girls with eight years of education are four times less likely to be married as children.

Educating women could even improve the global economy — drastically. Statistics presented in the film suggest that a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 percent more as an adult. If India enrolled 1 percent more girls in secondary school, its gross domestic product would rise by $5.5 billion.

After seeing the March 20 Park City screening of “Girl Rising,” viewer Claire Whitney was moved by this notion.

“I thought it was interesting how the education of girls directly affects the outcome of their economy and everything to do with their life,” she said. “People don’t realize that for so many issues, the answer is educating girls.”

John Wood, founder of Room to Read, stressed the importance of “Girl Rising.”

“(The film) helps the world to understand that without education for girls, very little can change in the developing world,” Wood said. “The fact that over 100 million girls will wake up this morning and not go to school is a tragedy. Our goal is to turn it into an opportunity. … When it costs as little as $250 per girl per year to help gain the lifelong gift of education (through Room to Read), the world can, and should, do more.”

Making a small difference now will make a big difference for future generations. Empowering one girl with education creates a snowball effect, because educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school.

Robbins said the overall goal of the film is to “change lives, change minds and change policy.”

“We knew we wanted to change lives, the lives of girls in particular, so a lot of the things we did while making the film, frankly, break the traditional rules of documentary,” he said. “We’re engaged in supporting all of the girls in the film. Traditionally, documentary filmmakers don’t get involved in the lives of their subjects, but we felt like as part of changing lives we wanted to change the lives of the people we actually interacted with for the better.”

He explained that the “Girl Rising” team, along with the 10×10 Educate Girls and Change the World campaign, is working to change minds by spreading the word about the need to educate women and building a constituency behind the issue in the United States. The organizations are also targeting policymakers.

“There are policies coming out of the United States and the United Nations that we feel we could have an impact on,” Robbins said. “As much as we can, we want to try to reach the people who are making the decisions about how we look at girls in the world.”

For more information about the film, click here.

For more details about the Provo screenings, click here.

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