By M. E. Jones
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.
Two more stories round out the repertoire, one joyous, one sad but still hopeful, both testifying to the thematic premise of the film, that education is the solution to problems plaguing the developing world, especially for women.
Educated girls are powerful! One is about a girl who lives in Sierra Leone, Freetown, Africa. After her father died, her mother married his brother, the girl's uncle. It is a tradition common in the world she lives in, the narrator tells us. Eventually, her stepfather will take a second wife, also a common practice. But there's something uncommon in the story, too.
This girl is lucky. She goes to school, the first girl in her family to do so. This story is told in a colage, with cartoons, balloons and eye-catching cutouts. The girl gets a job with a radio station. Radio is big in this African nation, she says, and talk shows are "huge," with call-ins. One girl who called her show told of a man where she worked and lived who had "wandering hands," the girl said.
This girl dreams of hosting her own TV show, or of becoming an astronaut. But she's never traveled or flown in an airplane. Hosting the radio show is an important step toward bigger things. But her father is taking heat about it, people are talking, strongly criticizing him for allowing her to do it. One night, he storms in, tells her she can't do it any more. Village gossips had convinced him it wasn't proper or safe.
Local lore also has it that kids who go to school don't respect their parents, she says. Suddenly, her options were shrinking, she needed help. "What would Isaac Newton do?" the girl asks herself. "I needed an equal force" to act on the forces conspiring to keep her down. She went to her father's second wife, who listened to the radio show and heard how the girl helped other girls. The woman pleaded her cause and her father changed his stand. He agreed she could do the show, but must come straight home after.
"Girls are not the problem," she said. "They are problem solvers."
The segment ends with a question: When 600 million girls in the developing world get a good education, what happens? The answer: Everything!
Amina, who lives in Afghanistan, is a pseudonym for a girl whose story is all too real. The men who control her life, brother, husband, father, would kill her if they knew she wants to learn, she says. No longer a child, Amina comes from a strict religious family and must wear a shroud when she goes out, like a masked and muted ghost. The robe extends from head to foot; the headgear fits her face so closely she can't speak, but she won't be silenced.
Hers is the story of millions of unseen women whose lives are lived within the untenable boundaries set by men. There was no record of Amina's birth. After delivering a baby girl, her mother set her aside in the dirt. Her mother could not read. Amina was allowed "a few short years" of school and learned to read on a blackboard imbedded in a stone wall.
From the age of three, Amina worked, carrying "icy mountain water to wash men's hands." A drudge and babysitter, her life would be one of servitude. At 11 years old, her father arranged a marriage, sold her to a cousin for $5,000, a deal approved by "my empty-eyed mother." The money was used to buy her brother a used car.
Trapped in an embroidered cage, she does not describe her "ghastly wedding night," but it was then that she vowed to endure and to prevail. When she gave birth to a son, she did not die, "as many do" in her world. Love for her son was tempered by her need to throw off the chains men had placed on her. "I felt only impatience," she says.
Poor, silenced, beaten, sold, raped..." we are stoned, burned for speaking the truth, shot for going to school, she said. "But I refuse ignorance!"
"Don't tell me it's my religion, culture, tradition..." and thus must be accepted. "Change is coming," she says, and she will return to school, no matter what! "If they kill me, others will take my place," Amina says. "I am the start of a different story," a legend. Whispered at first, the legend will grow, she says. "Don't doubt it ... I am change!"
Millions of girls have returned to school in Afghanistan, despite the dangers. Like the girls in this film, they refuse to give up.
Alexia Lipman, a junior at Bromfield, is interested in film. When she saw the trailer for "Girl Rising," she figured it was a "good opportunity" to share some startling facts while helping raise awareness for a worthwhile cause.
With help from teachers, her mom, friends and others, and $295 from the Harvard Schools Trust to cover costs, she brought the film to Harvard. Collections in the lobby went to the charity, 10X10, which presented the film, directed by Academy Award nominee Richard Robbins.
According to literature handed out at the screening, 10X10 is a global action campaign for girls' education founded by award-winning journalists at The Documentary Group and Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Productions, with strategic partner Intel Corporation.
Donations can be made online at girlrising.com.