Written by Natasha Uppal,@natashauppal
“Knowledge is power. And ignorance, ignorance is the enemy of change. But change is coming. And we are the change.” – Girl Rising
Earlier this month, 58 individuals from 12 countries decided to celebrate International Women’s Day by sharing stories of empowerment and change. Led by Virginia Campo, young women leaders from across the world broadcasted the Girl Rising documentary one after another, resulting in a marathon of screenings and meaningful conversations. Fittingly, the event was called the ‘Girl Rise-athon’. In DC, Women LEAD and Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies co-hosted the screening at Georgetown University. Having hosted this amazing film last year, I instantly jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it again. Later, as I sat in the audience engaging in discussions, answering questions, and listening to Claire from Women LEAD share their admirable work with girls in Nepal, I found myself feeling energized, inspired, and connected, much like everyone else who was a part of the 24 hour event.
Girl Rising, a film directed by Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins, tells the story of nine ordinary girls who confront tremendous challenges and overcome them to pursue their dreams. Beautifully written, narrated, and shot, the film conveys tales of immense determination and courage, successfully educating and sensitizing the audience without inducing guilt or pity. This is something that several past campaigns and documentaries have failed to do. Instead, Girl Rising echoes messages of hope and tenacity, reiterating the truth that these girls, and millions like them around the world, possess the ability to transform their lives and communities.
For me, each girl in the film, Wadley, Amina, Suma, Yasmin, Ruksana, and the others, reminded me of their counterparts that I have been lucky to meet and work with across rural India. For them too, illiteracy, bonded labor, early marriage, and sexual and physical violence are harsh realities that surround them everyday. Witnessing their strength, struggles, and triumphs firsthand and noticing the disparity between their achievements and the contrasting preconceived perceptions held by many in India and the world has solidified my belief in storytelling as an effective and indispensable component of social change. Girl Rising’s innovative storytelling managed to bring diverse and complex realities from around the world in front of a largely far removed audience in the United States in a respectful, educational, and objective manner. The understanding and curiosity it prompted was evident by the questions that followed post screening.
Of all the conversations that evening, two stood out for me. The first was regarding the role of men and boys in ensuring gender equality. Drawing from my experience in India, I shared a few examples of the challenges faced when working to empower women in predominantly patriarchal societies. These were real, often frustrating hurdles but they could be overcome by identifying and working alongside a few ‘champions’ within communities. Due to the codependent and interconnected nature of rural Indian societies, even men who support women’s empowerment hesitate to speak out from fear of being ridiculed or shunned. Encouraging them and giving them a platform to speak often helped many other mute supporters join in solidarity. Additionally, creating champions within panchayats (local governance bodies at village levels that are regarded highly by villagers and considered superior to state and national governments by them) have positive long-term effects for women’s empowerment. From her experience in Nepal, Claire added that while there is a definite shift in attitudes, it would be inaccurate to say that there isn’t any opposition at all. Fathers who initially feel reluctant to send their daughters to Women LEAD’s program are encouraged to attend their open house to learn more about the program. Though they might come in fearing the organization is anti-men, they quickly see that Women LEAD is inclusive, with boys participating in one of their programs as part of Women LEAD’s vision of women leading alongside men. Fathers, brothers and friends are critical allies for girls, and Women LEAD has seen the huge difference it makes when these male allies believe in girls’ right to education and empowerment.
The second conversation revolved around what people in the United States could do to help girls in developing countries. While there are many different ways, two stand out to ensure effective contributions that lead to the quickest results. They both begin with sensitization and awareness around the issue; familiarizing oneself with what is really going on. The best way to do this is by spending time to understand the work of organizations like Women LEAD, that are dedicated to empowering women and girls to help them escape poverty and discrimination. Next, individuals can choose to strengthen the programs run by these organizations by contributing monetarily. Along with, or instead of donating money, individuals can also help by assuming the role of storytellers. By reaching out to their networks and educating them about the issue, individuals can help drive attention, interest, and ultimately funds to the important work of grassroots organizations.
Everyday, all around the world, women and girls are fighting for their right to be heard. They are challenging longstanding traditions that stifle them and slowly, often painstakingly, replacing them with practices that ensure equality and dignity. They are breaking the shackles that tie them to a predetermined destiny and are setting examples for generations to follow. Their stories deserve to be told and their achievements merit recognition, encouragement, and support. Films, rather movements like Girl Rising and organizations like Women LEAD create a fantastic platform to do both.