In her 1968 poem, “The Speed of Darkness,” the late American poet Muriel Rukeyser penned the line, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
While the medium is different, a new feature-length documentary, “Girl Rising,” also bares witness to the same truth in poetic images and stories of girls from around the world.
Through the vivid accounts of nine girls from the developing world — Cambodia, Nepal, Peru, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Haiti, and India — and their valiant struggles for the right to be educated, “Girl Rising” articulates a universal truth: Educating girls ensures a safer, healthier and more prosperous world for all of us.
The film, a project of the 10×10 Campaign to educate and empower girls, paired a girl in each locale with an accomplished writer — novelists, journalists, and screenwriters — from their own developing country to help craft and tell the stories in the girls’ own words.
Each girl is a separate chapter in the film, which blends conventional documentary styles with narrative, fictionalized accounts portrayed sometimes by the girls themselves or by professional actors. Voice-overs are provided by A-list Hollywood talent, including Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Anne Hathaway, Salma Hayek, and Selena Gomez.
The film is visually stunning, combining breathtaking cinematography and folksy animation to illustrate the creativity and imagination with which the girls set about overcoming sometimes heartbreaking challenges — staggering poverty, slavery, and sexual violence — to secure their education.
Interspersed between chapters, the film educates its audience with information about the impact of educating girls on the rest of society:
- Worldwide today, 66 million girls are out of school.
- A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5, and educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children (boys and girls) to school.
- 14 million girls under the age of 18 will be married this year, and girls with eight years of education are four times less likely to be married as children.
- A girl with one extra year of education can earn more than 20 percent more as an adult.
The power of the film lies not in statistics, but in the stories of the girls themselves.
There is Azmera, a 13-year-old from rural Ethiopia, whose older brother — barely out of his teen years himself — intervenes to stop her from being given in marriage as a child bride so she can continue her schooling and have the opportunity for a better life.
Or darling 7-year-old Wadley, who refuses to be turned away from school after her family loses everything in the Haiti earthquake of 2010, returning to a makeshift school in a tent city day after day until the teacher allows her to stay.
And then there’s Suma from Nepal, an aspiring songwriter who, at the age of 6, is sold into indentured servitude (i.e. slavery) as a kamlari (or house girl) while her brothers are sent to school. By learning to read she also learns that kamlari is an illegal practice, eventually wins her freedom, and goes on to work for the emancipation of other enslaved children.
“Girl Rising” struck a particularly personal chord. I know the power of story to change the world. I’ve experienced it firsthand.
On April 29, 2009, a 9-year-old boy from Malawi arrived in Chicago for life-saving open-heart surgery to correct a heart defect with which he’d been born. His name is Vasco.
A few years before, while my husband and I were traveling in Africa, we met Vasco on the outskirts of Blantyre in southern Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world. He had been orphaned as an even younger child and ended up living on the streets.
Born with a large hole in his heart, Vasco was dying. For the brief time we were in country (about 72 hours) we tried to get him medical assistance but there was none to be had.
When we left Malawi, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again and I was beside myself. As I saw it, Vasco was going to die well before his time because he was poor and African. And that was not acceptable.
I didn’t know what to do to change his fate. I’m not a politician, I’m not wealthy and I’m not a doctor. But I am a journalist. So I did the one thing I knew I could do: I told Vasco’s story in the pages of the Chicago newspaper where I worked at the time.
That story inspired a group of doctors and hospitals in Chicago to donate their services to fix Vasco’s heart if we could get him to the U.S. for surgery.
It took 18 months of legal and bureaucratic maneuvering to get him to Chicago, but Vasco finally got here; a month later, he underwent successful surgery to repair his heart.
Vasco is now my son. Today he is a vibrant 13-year-old in perfect health, growing like a weed, and excelling in his studies and sports. He is the joy of my life.
In a few weeks, Vasco and I will return to Malawi with our friends at the ONE Campaign to visit relief projects that work with children and their families. And we will share their stories with you.