Girls Rising

Photo courtesy of 10x10

We first meet Wadley, one of nine tiny heroines in Richard Robbin's wrenching documentary Girl Rising, walking to school in Haiti a few hours before 2010's devastating earthquake. She is priming herself for a recitation of an 1802 speech by Haitian anti-colonialist revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. "In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty," she says. "It will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep."

From Ethiopia to Afghanistan, Girl Rising is a vista of that trunk's recurrent cutting down and springing up from its deep and many roots. In all nine stories, the girls are not only denied access to education -- the film's ostensible focus -- but also fundamental human rights, like freedom from slavery and equality before the law. Under Robbin's watchful eye, Girl Rising combines their stories into a primary source for tomorrow's historians of a time when girls' status as second-class citizens was on the cusp of seismic change. For though their struggle is feminist rather than anti-colonial, the girls' aims of an equitable crack at self-determination are the same as Louverture's.

The lack of agency in the girls' lives is staggering. Many of their families don't have money for food and shelter, much less education: Sokha lives in the needle-festooned Cambodian dump she picks through for scrap metal, and Nepali Suma's parents send her to live as a Kamalari, or bonded laborer, because they can't afford to support her. What we would call statutory rape is called normal in many of their societies -- in Ethiopian Azmera's story, we learn that thirteen is considered the best age for a girl to be married -- any younger and her husband might "split" her. Afghani Amina is married off (and presumably "split") at 11 because "my mind was of little value, but my body could settle a dispute."

Misfortune the world's most swaddled children would be hard-pressed to overcome compounds these already bleak circumstances. Senna's father is nearly killed in a mining accident in their remote Peruvian mountain town. He can't return to the mines or hold down another job, spirals into depression, and dies, forcing Senna to start cleaning public toilets to support her family. In Kolkata, a phalanx of Indian police officers surprise Ruksana and her family by storming in to tear down the slum they live in, flicking away all the grit and pain they have staked their lives on in the span of an afternoon. Our perceptions of miner's rights and shantytowns are transformed as we watch -- strikers and protestors are replaced with the broken face of a girl whose aspirations have been crushed with a businessman's indifference or a policeman's boot.

This trauma is the sinew of the girls' formative years, and they each develop their own coping mechanisms. "I wrote songs to remind myself my memories are real," Suma says. "How could so much beauty and meanness exist in one world?" Ruksana asks, and paints vibrant tableaus of peaceful families when the real world bears too little resemblance. "Poetry is how I turn ugliness into art," is Senna's rejoinder to her circumstances. Like most art, their poetry and song are artistic refuges sprung from harrowing origins. And as much as we want to applaud them for their elegant warping of the unspeakable into the spoken, doing so applauds the effects of trauma that seems too egregious to celebrate.

For the girls' real strength lies in their decisions, not their artistry. Despite the great gap between what they deserve and what is possible for them, they and their champions keep trying for better lives. Azmera's brother sells everything he owns to save her from an arranged marriage and keep her in school. Wadley tells a teacher who tries to turn her away that she will keep coming back every day until she is allowed to stay, even though her mother can no longer pay the tuition. "We've come so far with such great difficulty," Ruksana's mother says after the police leave them homeless. "Why should we let them drive us away now?" Each of these decisions is a paean to action, which alone can beat back the anarchy and grief that could otherwise subsume their lives. Each step is a tangible painting, poem, or song -- an article of faith in a place that could be so bereft of it.

Girl Rising offers few prescriptions for how we can help, but does suggest changing legislation alone is not the answer. Kamalari was outlawed in Nepal in 2000, but as Suma's story shows, many Nepalese do not know or care that indentured servitude is illegal. "She has been bonded," her captor says when a social worker comes to take Suma away. "A bond cannot be broken." In Ethiopia, the law says girls cannot be married off until eighteen, but thirteen is still considered the ideal age, and Azema was offered up even younger, at twelve. Although the Taliban no longer officially control Afghanistan, their dicta still hold sway in the tribal regions where Amina lives, and no progressive reforms have reached her under her chadri.

But where the law fails, some progressive men succeed. Ruksana's father cares about her education enough to sacrifice life in the country for a Kolkata slum so she can go to school. But when she gets in trouble for sketching in class, her father knows she just needs an outlet for her artistic aspirations, and rather than punishing her, takes her to an art supply store for a sketchbook and paint. Even as Senna's father slips further into despair, he encourages her to study so she can become an engineer. Azmera's brother is willing to stake his life savings on an independent future for his sister. Some might lament that it takes men to make things better, but it is not discrediting the girls to say that they need partners in rising.

Girl Rising is about the privilege of owning our stories. We may live in a country where girls still face prejudice -- not least in that we sometimes give our rapists as much benefit of the doubt as we give their victims -- but at least we are free to try and tell our stories as we mean them, to use them to instruct others in empathy and correct the future's course as best we can. If transported into our world, I can only imagine in awe what the girls would do. They would take no quarter with the low-grade malaise that afflicts the cast of Girls and their ilk, who spend their time complaining about "becoming who they are" and their parents unleashing their aimless selves into the wild world of financial independence. They would spend their college years and their twenties using the abundance around them, starting companies, writing books, studying the problems they came from. If it is possible for me to decently say I envy them, I do so because I know that if they were given what I have, they'd do so much more with it.

But more than inspiring shame at any first-world lassitude, Girl Rising inspires righteous anger -- a perspective and a virtue we do not often give its due. The Washington Post's now-defunct ombudsmen Patrick B. Pexton described this impetus to force unfair facts and unfortunate feelings at you in one of his final columns about journalism's tendency towards liberalism: "Being out in the world, reporters encounter a great deal of unfairness," he wrote. "We want to expose that and even rub your noses in it. In a way, we're shouting, through our stories: 'This is unfair! Somebody do something!'" Girl Rising does that.

What it doesn't do is assign responsibility. "Don't blame my religion," Amina says from behind her chadri. But if Wahhabi and Salafi Islam are not responsible for keeping her face hidden, voice muffled, and potential buried, who is? If religion is just a scapegoat, who has the power to use it that way? Are those people keeping their girls down because they don't think girls could meaningfully contribute, because they're afraid of the competition, because they don't know who would take care of their children? And how can we not blame religion in countries where religion permeates everything? If we don't blame anyone for the girls' condition, we have nowhere to start fixing it.

The girls also possess uncommon confidence and preternatural poise, and not all girls do. As hard as it is to watch Senna clean bathrooms and Sokha pick through trash, it would have been even harder to see the same happen to a girl who let these experiences define her. A tragedy is more what it does to us than what it is, and I'd wager the same circumstances have done worse to many girls than they have to Girl Rising's nine. I wish we'd met some of those girls, and been called upon to help them with the same moral urgency as we are for the superstars we meet.

I end with Amina, hunched on the side of an Afghan mountain underneath her blue burqa. From what you can tell, which isn't much, she looks like she's shaking. But the monologue she launches into is steady and sure. "I will read and I will learn and I will study," she says. "I will return to school. I dare you to tell me it's a waste of time. If you try to stop me, I will just try harder. Put me in a pit, I will climb out. If you kill me, there will be other girls who rise up and take my place. I will find a way to endure, to prevail. The future of man lies in me, and this is the future I see. I am the beginning of a different story in Afghanistan. And when my granddaughter explains how I withstood the odds against me, it will become legend." Toussaint Louverture couldn't have said it better.