Senna; photo by Gina Nemirofsky
Senna; photo by Gina Nemirofsky

A series

By M. E. Jones

Correspondent

HARVARD -- The film "Girl Rising" tells the stories of nine girls in developing countries where education is hard to come by for the poor of both genders and far more so for girls.

Presented by a nonprofit group called "10X10," and screened recently at The Bromfield School, the stories send a powerful message about the importance of educating girls and of supporting the cause, which is what the organization, and the film are all about.

Ruksana

Ruksana, of Kollata, India, had the good fortune to have a father who "invested" in her.

Her family is poor and lives in the city. She daydreams. It is a struggle to send her to school.

Ruksana; photo by Martha Adams
Ruksana; photo by Martha Adams
But in the classroom, the teacher catches her drawing pictures and throws her out.

Obviously, it's not the first time.

Roksana promises her father it won't happen again, but trouble always follows her.

"Come on," her father says. They go to a store that sells art supplies. It's a magical place, with colorful treasures on the shelves. He buys her pencils, paints, a sketch pad. From now on, she will only draw in this book.

"It was the happiest day!" Ruksana enthuses.

Sometimes, there's not enough money for food, she muses, but she's a lucky girl today.

She dreams of buying a big house for her family, how she'll fly them there ... an elaborate dream. Reality is grittier.

The streets are not safe. Boys hem her in, saying they want to see her drawings. A scary moment. "Baba!" Ruksana calls out. The boys run away. Her mother pleads with her father to take the family back to the village she came from but he refuses. Opportunity is here, in the city, he says, even though their home is only a makeshift shack of sticks and fabric.

Ruksana and her sisters live in a shelter, it's safer. It's monsoon season, violence flares. Government officers came and tore down many street shanties. The family's home is dismantled along with the others. With no place to go, Baba is ready to give up, but this time Ruksana's mother wants to stay. They've come this far, she says, why be driven away now?

So they stay, together, a family. "My friends are still here, too," Ruksana says. "After the rain, there's always sunshine!" And the message is: Never give up.

Ruksana is one of the lucky ones. In the developing world, school isn't free. Books, even report cards, cost money. But the theme of this story -- of all these stories -- is that knowledge that comes from school will eventually lead to changes for the better. And that one of the most important changes is in attitude, believing that girls are as deserving of education as boys are. And statistics show it pays off.

Senna

Senna comes form Rincondada, Peru. She is a poet, weaving beauty from the "riptide of human suffering" she has seen. Poetry was always in her soul, she says, and she seems to have learned it "all at once."

She is shown at 14, living and studying in a coal-mining town high in the Andes. Her village is on the side of the 17,000-foot crater of a dead volcano, where there is perpetual snow. It is the highest habitation in the world.

Named for Xena, the fictional warrior princess of TV fame whose name her father misspelled, she was destined to be a warrior, she says, to defend the poor.

Her father was a miner, but after being hurt in a mining accident, he died a slow, painful death. When her husband was disabled, Senna's mother took his place on the mountain, pounding rock all day. Her father insisted that she go to school, saying, "There's no hope for me, but there is for you." He told her to study, "to make yourself a better person." Some girls opt to work in brothels where the miners go. These girls seem hard, wild, sad, many of them have AIDS.

Senna goes to work for a man who operates the public toilets. Her job includes cleaning and collecting fees. Her father is dying. He tells her she'll become an engineer. She's worried, has a hard time in school. "But he needed me to stay," she says. Her mother takes her father down the mountain, finds a shaman, hoping to cure his cough. He never came back home and Senna never saw him again. It was a terrible blow.

"We'd never owned a fleck of the gold he chipped out of that mountain," she laments. But she had buried treasure of her own to mine, a cache of poems with lines that "stopped my heart." She memorized the poems. "My father was right, I was brave," she said, a warrior with words as weapons. "I will be a poet!"

Statistics: Only half of all girls in the developing world (countries in these stories) reach secondary school. Senna has beaten the odds. But it's a win/win situation if more girls make it, too. Girls need schools. They need to study. They will earn 20 percent more if they do and their countries' gross national products will go up. Educated girls are powerful!