You've Been Lied to, and Other Truths About Educating Girls

A child of the dump, on her way to college. It was a story that brought nearly everyone to tears. But not me. I was still skeptical. I was still reluctant to truly embrace something that was incontrovertibly true and unquestionably important.
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There is a reason you keep hearing about the power of educating girls in the developing world. It's a reason so simple that you will probably view it with suspicion, as I once did. It's this: educating girls works. Really works.

But you're probably like me. Skeptical. It's an idea that seems too trendy. Or too simplistic. In truth, I was many months into working on Girl Rising, a film about educating girls in the developing world, when my producer, Martha Adams, first called me "the world's most reluctant enthusiast." We were at the end of a long day of interviewing girls in Cambodia. Girls who had unbelievable stories. Girls like Sokha, an orphan who had survived scavenging in the city dump, until she finally got a chance to go to school. Already in her early teens, she seized that chance like her life depended on it. She studied like a fiend. She shot to the top of her class so fast that she was moved to a better school. Now she is set to graduate from one of the top schools in the country. A child of the dump, on her way to college. It was a story that brought nearly everyone to tears. But not me. I was still skeptical. I was still reluctant to truly embrace something that was incontrovertibly true and unquestionably important.

I tell you this now not because I think you want to know about me, but because I want you to know that I came to this issue -- educating girls -- with no natural passion for the subject. It was not my life's work. It was not my calling. It was just an idea floating around the vast universe of ideas, that bumped into me and stuck. I certainly didn't ask it to stick with me. I was busy with my family, by budding career as a TV writer, my antipathy for the Los Angeles Lakers, and my general reluctance to engage in anything that might force me to leave my comfort zone. But sometimes ideas won't let you go. For me, educating girls was like that.

There is no point in recounting the details of how and why I found myself learning about the power of educating girls. I could easily have read it in a column by Nick Kristof, or heard a TED lecture by Melinda Gates. The idea wasn't hiding. It was getting plenty of play at conferences and in academic circles. It had made itself comfortable in the halls of the World Bank, and UNICEF. In the world of NGOs it was practically gospel.

So why did I doubt it for so long? Why do you? And that's when I realized that I'd been lied to. And the sad truth was that I wanted to be lied to. The lie "they" told me was that nothing worked. That extreme poverty -- the crippling, mind-bending deprivation that hundreds of millions of people endure -- was just too big and too deep. And sure, maybe you can make a difference here and there. Maybe you could find a way to do some good. Help one deserving person. But really, at the end of the day, don't worry yourself about it too much, because really nothing works.

In its most insidious form this lie was fed to me in an openly paternalistic, vaguely racist form from naysayers who objected to development aid and reinforced the notion that there is an "us" and a "them." I was confidently among the people who looked upon that lie with suspicion. Scorn, even. But the less overt form of this lie somehow slipped past my skepticism and allowed me to go on living my comfortable life, equally confident that there was nothing else I should be doing. After all, what could I do, when really nothing worked?

And then, along came girls' education -- something that worked. And it wasn't obscure or complicated or implausible. And every time I dug deeper, there was more evidence, studies, and statistics. Nobody is saying that educating girls is a cure-all for what ails the world. But it is so empirically and universally effective, that it demands we pay attention.

Of course, education does loads of things for girls that won't surprise you at all -- it provides self-esteem, teaches important life skills, and offers the kinds of choices a good education can give anyone. But it doesn't stop there. It helps girls get married later, stay healthier, have fewer children, and have educated children of their own. So when girls get educated, economies grow, communities prosper, and poverty declines.

And this problem -- the 66 million girls in the world who don't go to school because they are too poor, or live too far away, or are too busy working -- this isn't one of those overwhelming global issues where we have to sit and hope someone smart comes along and figures out how to fix it. Not to say it's simple, but nearly every one of us knows what a good school looks like. Or a good teacher. Or a student who is learning.

When I set about making this film, and telling everyone who would listen what I had learned about girls' education, I discovered this other thing that is really important, too. Not about girls' education, but about us. Many of us anyway. We are desperate to do something that will make a difference in the world. To help other people -- and not because we want anything back, or because some boogey man will come get us if we don't. But just because we can.

So I'm telling you this: You can make a difference. You can create real and meaningful change in the world. Help get girls into schools. Help them stay. Help them learn. It will work and you can do it. Your time and money can help build schools, train teachers, change laws, pay for uniforms and books. In the modern world you don't have to send your money off into the unknown and hope it helps. You can get involved and do it on your own with some diligent research. Or you can look to one of the amazing organizations, like our partners in Girl Rising, who spend every day helping girls.

Find out more about the 10x10 Fund for Girls Education, which will help make an impact where it matters. Contributions are distributed evenly among our non-profit partners: A New Day Cambodia, CARE, Girl Up/United Nations Foundation, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, Room to Read, and World Vision. All of them operate girls' education initiatives around the world, and the girls of the world need your help. So stop telling yourself there is nothing you can do, and do something.