If You Want to Change the World, You Must Educate Girls

PHOTO: Senna holds her poetry medal in La Rinconada, Peru. She is one of nine girls featured in the documentary Girl Rising.

Photo by Gina Nemirofsky. Photo provided by 10x10 Educate Girls, Change the World, (c) 2011

Educate girls and you will change the world.

That is the message behind Girl Rising, a documentary out this month from Academy Award-nominated director Richard Robbins. The film chronicles the unique struggles nine girls from nine different countries face as they fight for what many girls in the United States take for granted: an education.

The featured girls come from the biting mountaintops of La Rinconada, Peru and the urban squalor of Kolkata, India. They range from little Wadley, just seven when the earthquake in Haiti razes her home and school, to teenagers like Suma from Nepal, who was sold into bonded labor as a young girl and never taught to read. They have been sexually abused, forced into marriage, and saddled with impossible poverty.

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"It's a simple fact," Liam Neeson narrates in the film. "There is nobody more vulnerable than a girl."

Each story is told as an individual unit narrated by well-known actresses such as Selena Gomez, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep, and between each, Neeson narrates facts and figures. They are shocking - 66 million girls around the world don't attend school, a child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five - but it is the faces and the individual stories that you remember.

Senna, 14, lives 17,000 feet up in the Andes, on the side of an ancient volcano. Her father, who passed away after toiling in the gold mines there, named her after Xena, the warrior princess. But he had only heard the name, not seen the spelling, so she is Senna. A warrior princess in her own right. Her father insisted she attend school, and in that way she is lucky. It is, at the very least, a mental escape from the abject poverty in which she and her family are trapped. Senna is happiest when she is lost in the world of poetry.

"Each page opened a world," her narrator says in the film.

Senna's dad wanted her to be an engineer, because in the Andes, they hold the power. And by the end of her story, she vows to be one, but not in the typical sense. She will be an engineer of words.

"I will be the engineer my father wanted me to be," her narrator, Salma Hayek, says. "I will be a poet."

The stories are heartbreaking, but they're meant to be inspiring. We can help these girls - who really represent all girls - and education is the answer, the film says. Education can help end the cycle of poverty. It can help prevent toddlers from being forced into marriage. Education is a powerful tool and the world knows it, the film says. We just need to use it.

"One of the things that is most exciting," Robbins, who used to work at ABC News, said during a recent phone interview, "is that it's not one of the global problems we don't know the solution to. It's not AIDS. It's not global warming. We're not casting about. We know how to fix it. We're dealing with implementation. We know what a good school and a good teacher look like and how powerful that can be."

Robbins said the idea for the film emerged in 2006, when he was working on another project, but it really progressed about two and a half years ago, in 2010. Filming began in February of last year. They spent between five and 10 days filming with each girl.

Each girl - with two exceptions for safety reasons - plays herself in the film. Their stories were each crafted by a writer from their own country and then narrated by an actress.

Robbins and his team met with hundreds of girls over the course of several years, he said, but in a sense, the nine that are featured were self-selecting.

"Each one of them came forward and said, 'I have a story I want to tell about my life,'" Robbins said.

That's a powerful display of courage for these girls who grow up in parts of the world where women are not expected to speak up. For two of the girls, simply saying aloud that they want to go to school can be deadly.

In some ways the girls in the film are lucky. Intel, a corporate partner, is providing financial support so that each can continue their education. And it almost seems unfair that there are so many girls who were not selected, who are not enrolled in school. But Intel alone cannot finance the education of every girl in the world and the filmmakers cannot tell every story. The film is a very deliberate call to action.

The filmmakers invite audience members to donate here or by texting GIVE to 55155. The film is being distributed traditionally in New York and Los Angeles, but will be shown on demand in other locations through Gathr, a service that allows people to sign up to captain a screening that will take place if enough people sign up to see the movie.

"Awareness is clearly a fundamental issue for us and particularly given what's happened in the nonprofit world in the last couple of decades," Robbins said, adding that nonprofits have been forced to tailor spending to specific, measurable policy goals and away from broad, public awareness.

Robbins and his team have policy goals in mind, and while he didn't go into detail about what those goals are, the filmmakers have held screenings at the World Bank and other organizations where he said they have received a positive response.

While no one has "jumped out of their seat and run to the floor of Congress," Robbins said, he thinks the film is "definitely starting to have an impact."

Girl Rising is the centerpiece of 10x10, a global campaign to educate and empower girls. It was founded by journalists at The Documentary Group, a group of former ABC News journalists, and Vulcan Productions, along with strategic partner, Intel Corporation. For more information on the film, go here.

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