First in a series

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

HARVARD -- The film "Girl Rising" opens with a young woman in a colorful silk costume standing alone on a stage. There is music and she begins to dance, her limbs artfully poised, hands moving in graceful, stylized motions, like butterfly wings.

For years, the narrator says, this beautiful dancer was "a child of the dump."

The scene shifts to a squalid, scary landscape made of rubbish; people are rummaging through mountains of it, most of them children. The dancer was one of those "discarded orphans" picking through the trash heaps, the narrator says, hoping to find sellable scraps while taking care not to step on the needle tip of a disease-infected hypodermic syringe.

The girl was a "throwaway thing" in a dark world then, but she dreamed of bright possibilities, imagining herself in a clean, crisp school uniform. She dreamed of books.

Now, she dances, smiling, no longer a lost child but still sheltering her dreams. It's her story to tell now, to write herself, the narrator says. "And it's just the beginning."

Over the next hour and a half, the film, directed by Richard Robbins and presented by a charity called 10X10 that advocates for girls' education, profiles nine girls, telling simple tales that teach lessons, highlight morals and underscore the wide gap in future prospects for girls who are educated versus those who are not.


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The stories are alternately written and narrated by professional authors and actors or by the girls themselves. Dreamers, doers, their stories are sketches of courage and determination in developing countries where girls are not valued as boys are and education is not only costly but selectively available, viewed as a plus for boys, perhaps, but not necessary for girls.

Intersected with statistics that show just how precarious the situation is for girls in those countries, the stories tell of struggles, triumphs and the changing power of hope.

Wadley

Wadley is an 8-year-old girl living in Port Au Prince, Haiti, when the earthquake struck in 2010. It is the dry season but there are wild flowers everywhere. On this day "the impossible seems possible," but it is a dream.

Wadley wakes up at home, sitting at the table. She must memorize a speech for school today. It's about courage, a man's words. Wadley wonders, why isn't it about a "brave, strong woman," like her mother?

At school, she stands next to a friend whose father -- a taxi driver -- was murdered the week before because he refused to give a thief his money. Others recite, then it's Wadley's turn. Hers is a defiant speech, about liberty.

Back home, she's writing a composition when suddenly, there's a loud, rumble, like thunder; everything is shaking, falling apart. The next scene is in a tent camp. There are no flowers there.

People are trying to return to "normal" lives, but they've all lost family members, friends, nothing is normal any more.

Wadley can't go to school now. She walks every day to fetch water, carrying a bucket. On one trip, she sees a school set up beneath an awning, children gathered there, learning. "The school is open, why can't I go?" Wadley asks her mother. Because there's no money to pay for her. But this was her class, her teacher. She should be there, too.

Wadley knows that money is why some families eat better and more often than others and that some kids go to school when others don't. But the logic escapes her. She only knows that she wants to go to school. She decides to go anyway.

The teacher asks, "Do you go here?" Wadley is surprised. Doesn't her teacher know her? She does, but tells her, "Sorry...you can't stay."

She walks away, past men digging bodies from the rubble. She thinks, isn't it true that survivors are blessed? If so, then she is blessed, and she can go to school. This time, she's determined to stay and tells the teacher she will come back every day until she is allowed to stay and learn. The teacher shrugs. Wadley wins. She's happy.

Suma

In developing nations, girls are expected to work, care for younger siblings, "or worse," the narrator says. Girls like Suma, of Bardya, Nepal. 

At six years old, Suma was sent to work by her parents, continuing a tradition in the family of "bonding" out children. How else can the poor live?

The film portrays Suma on a bicycle, a young woman now, pedaling past the places where she lived and worked as a child. In the first, she worked for a landlord and miller. She cleaned, washed dishes, fetched firewood, tended goats and his "nasty" children.

Suma wanted to stay home and go to school, like her brother, but, knowing her parents' poverty, she couldn't ask it of them. Instead, she wrote songs.

Her second master and mistress were "hard" people, calling her "unlucky girl." She can't talk about all that happened there, she says now, but her songs helped her through it.

She was 11 when she was bonded out for the third and last time. This place was "not as bad." A schoolteacher lodged there. "He changed my life," Suma says. The teacher convinced her master to enroll Suma in night classes in a school run by social workers for bonded children. There, she learned that bonded labor is slavery.

The teachers canvassed the houses, trying to "liberate" bonded children. It's against the law, they told these masters, against many laws. It is unjust. One teacher demanded that Suma's master set her free. At first, he refused. But the teacher persisted and finally led her home.

Suma was the last bonded worker in her family. "After me, everyone will be free," she says. "I am my own master now." And she has important things to do.

Stopping at another house, Suma says a "girl like me" lives there, a bonded servant, as she was. "We're here to tell the master, you must set her free." Suma says.

The moral of the tale is that change happens like this, like a song that others pick up and start to sing, a melody that touches hearts, one after another, across the world. Since 2000, bonded servitude has been illegal in Nepal and today it is finally coming to an end, thanks to adults who took action and girls like Suma.

Statistics: 33 million fewer girls than boys go to school in developing nations. In Africa, girls are often victims of sexual violence.

End of Part 1.