by Lou Mancinelli

A girl on planet Earth has a one in four chance of being born into poverty, according to the World Bank. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five, according to UNESCO.

These and other staggering facts were poignantly weaved throughout the documentary “Girl Rising,” which was shown in Philadelphia to a standing-room-only auditorium Wednesday evening, March 13, at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. The event also featured a pre-viewing talk with Homa Tavangar, nationally recognized author of “Growing Up Global: Raising Children to be at Home in the World.”

At the heart of the film is the message that around the world, in places like developing countries, where, according to The World Bank, there are more than 600 million girls, small steps in education can produce huge results.

For example, a girl with an extra year of education can earn up to 20 percent more as an adult, according to the World Bank. But the film shows even those small steps can be lined with obstacles that seem like mountain ranges. According to UNESCO, 66 million girls are out of school worldwide.

“The reality is we really are only a generation or two removed from very dramatic stories that show how much social change is happening all around us,” said Tavangar in an interview a few days after the screening.

The film chronicles the barriers faced and sacrifices made by nine girls from different parts of the world to be educated. It is narrated by celebrities like Meryl Streep, Selena Gomez, Alicia Keys, Salma Hayek and Liam Neeson. The girls’ stories have been adapted by celebrated writers from their own countries. The vignettes present a lyrical, tragic and inspiring, albeit drawn-out, film.

To introduce the film, Tavangar shared the story of her grandmother, who was raised in Iran and was married through an arranged wedding at 15. Her grandmother became pregnant within a year. Her family eventually disowned her grandmother because she wanted to become literate and her husband supported her..

If the film seemed shocking, it’s because “the life situations are so stark and so severe around the world for girls,” Tavangar said. But once one becomes aware of a situation, one can stand for change, she added.

The girls whose stories are depicted in this film, directed by Richard E. Robbins, have faced barriers like forced marriage, domestic slavery, discrimination and gender violence in their efforts to become educated.

Ruksana is an 11-year-old girl who moved with her sister and parents from the family’s village to the slums of the densely populated city of Kolkata in India so the daughters could attend school. One day local police forced the family and all its neighbors to break down their shanty town. The family is forced to survive the yearly monsoons unaided, even by the use of tarps draped across sticks and boards for support. The girls and their mother end up living in a shelter, separated from their father. Her father works two jobs, one as a sugarcane vendor and the other as a painter at the airport.

Ruksana’s story was written by Sooni Taraporevala, an Oscar-nominated writer. When Ruksana gets into trouble in class for not finishing her work because she loves art and is always doodling, her father buys her art supplies instead of scolding her. If India enrolled 1 percent more girls in secondary school, its gross domestic product would rise by $5.5 billion, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

When the number of girls attending school increases by 10 percent, a country’s GDP increases by 3 percent, according to 10×10, a global organization created to combine “Girl Rising” with a social action campaign. Its goal is to create one billion media impressions and one million actions worldwide associated with social advocacy for girls’ education.

Dr. Priscilla Sands, SCH head of school, agreed to host the showing at the school because it presented an opportunity for the community and the school’s students to raise their awareness about challenges faced by others around the world. When Sands was an elementary school student she said she had no idea about the conditions for girls in other parts of the world.

“We can’t just passively read sad stories about the plight of people’s lives,” said Sands, who called the movie a “call to action.”

Anne Sudduth, a mother of two SCH students, spearheaded efforts to bring the film to the school. Sudduth, a longtime friend and former college roommate of 10×10 executive director Holly Gordon, who is also an executive producer on the film, shared her enthusiasm about the 10×10 campaign and her goal to bring it to the community with school administrators last year.

Gordon, who has worked with major news broadcasts like World Tonight, filmed a short video that played before the showing Wednesday night.

“I knew that the school is a forum and a gathering place for people who care about educating girls,” said Sudduth. Her two daughters are 8 and 10 years old.

“The film is a rallying cry for anyone who wants to make a difference,” she said.

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