Fiona's Blog: To Educate a Girl
I’ve often wondered if those who are provided with less, make more with what they are given. On Thursday, I went to a screening of a documentary called To Educate A Girl, and was convinced once again of the life-changing importance of education for girls and women. More importantly, I also realized the incredible drive to learn that permeates communities where girls are not given such opportunities.
Filmmakers Frederick Rendina and Oren Rudavsky focused on the factors that inhibit girls around the world from getting an adequate education, through chronicling the stories of several girls in Uganda and Nepal, two countries emerging from violent civil wars.
To Educate a Girl begins with Manisha, a daughter of a brick-carrier in Nepal, who has been unable to attend school due to her duties at home and her family’s poverty. In Nepal, school costs money and Manisha’s parents can neither spare her labor nor pay for her schooling. Manisha’s situation is not unique. A part of a low caste called the Dalit Caste, Manisha is one of thirty-five girls in her small village who are unable to attend school.
In Uganda, we meet six-year-old Mercy, whose mother and grandmother dropped out of school early in their lives due to pregnancy. Mercy’s mother explains that the man who impregnated her left her soon after she became pregnant. Mercy is desperate to go to school. Eventually, her dream comes true when her mother is persuaded by an organization called Girls Education Movement (GEM) that marches students proudly through the village on their first days of school, in an effort to encourage other children to come. After coming home from her first day of school, Mercy is smiling from ear to ear, showing her mother her notebook and telling her stories from the day.
Although most of the girls in the film are extremely poor and have few educational or professional role-models, they are extremely ambitious and goal-oriented from very young ages. Fourteen-year-old Sanju from Nepal says that it is her dream to become a famous scientist. Another Nepalese girl aspires to be a heart specialist. Sarah, a Ugandan girl whose parents were killed in the civil war, also hopes to become a doctor.
In a world that is constantly seeking ambitious people interested in science and medicine, fields that lack women, it was fascinating to see that nearly all of the girls polled aspired to hold jobs in science or medicine, while in the U.S. and Western Europe, where education is easily accessible to girls, many girls turn away from these fields.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for their interest in these fields, one can speculate it may be due to these girls’ experiences in their communities. Most of the girls come from homes that lack electricity, running water, and other modern advances, and live in villages where medicine and healthcare are not always available. Perhaps, the girls in To Educate a Girl are drawn to these fields because they have seen firsthand the necessity for more professionals in these areas.
As for their remarkable ambition, perhaps their upbringings can be thanked for this too. A recent study done by researchers at Princeton and Indiana Universities concluded that people who studied for a test through reading facts in a more difficult type font for the brain to process did better than those who studied the facts in an easier type font to process; in other words, those who had a more difficult time studying ultimately performed better.
While it may be too early to compare academic records between girls in developing nations and those in developed nations, and filmmaker Oren Rudavsky explained that many of these girls don’t make it past elementary school, it is clear from To Educate A Girl that a lack of resources is not deterring many girls from learning, and in fact could be motivating some of them.
After the screening, filmmakers Rudavsky and Rendina discussed how many girls have to study in the dark due to lack of electricity and many of the schools still lack enough teachers, leading to crowded classrooms. In the film, we see girls learning on dusty floors. While these conditions are certainly not ideal, perhaps this hardship somehow contributes to making these girls so driven.
Unfortunately, the nations chronicled in the film lacked more than just resources. Many of the villages were rooted in sexist ideology that prevented girls from get adequate schooling. Mercy explains that she has been afraid to attend school, because she thinks the other kids will beat her up. Sanju says that her parents are reluctant to send her older sister to school, because they feel that it would interfere with her getting married.
Many adults in the film also discuss the fact that it makes more sense to educate sons than daughters, since daughters will ultimately leave the house and family one day. The filmmakers said that in many developing countries girls who get their periods don’t attend school for fear of being laughed at by the boys—and in this way, helping girls attend school requires not just the cooperation of the girls and their families, it requires assistance from boys in the community as well.
Some organizations hoping to further girls’ education appear to be working strongly against these opinions. Members of Young Champions, an organization in Nepal, is shown having an argument with a woman in front of her house about her decision to not send her daughter to school. Other organizations in the film molded their message to fit cultural norms.
In a particularly moving scene when the children are marching through Mercy’s village on the first day of school, the GEM spokeswoman talks to the villagers about the reasons to send their daughters to school. Among the many reasons that will appeal to a Western audience, another stands out: the spokeswoman says that an educated daughter’s dowry will be worth more.
Many questions arise from To Educate a Girl. Are the very obstacles making it difficult for many girls to learn ultimately also, in some cases, creating more determined students? Is it better to change attitudes in a region and assume that obliterating the obstacles will soon follow, or to work within cultural norms to achieve a goal? In the film, at one GEM headquarters in Uganda, kids hold up signs that say “If you educate a girl you will educate the world.” To Educate A Girl perfectly demonstrates this. With girls so ambitious and relentless in their search for higher learning, it is easy to see how a small investment in girls’ education can pay off immensely.
Fiona Lowenstein is a high school senior, weekly guest blogger and Girls Leadership Institute alumna. Read more of her work here.