Last week, in honor of International Women’s Day, I attended a screening of the documentary To Educate a Girl, a film that Spectra discussed last month. The film was supported by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which was founded in 2000 to address issues of equal access to education around the world. When UNGEI was founded, 110 million children around the world did not attend school, and two thirds of those children were girls. Today, 67 million children are out of school, and approximately half of those children are girls. Those numbers are a dramatic improvement, but much more work needs to be done. To Educate a Girl uses children in Uganda and Nepal as case studies to discuss the advances that have been made, and the work that still needs to be done, to ensure equal access to education for all children, regardless of gender.
To Educate a Girl was filmed in 2010, ten years after UNGEI formed. The film follows girls in Uganda and Nepal as they struggle with a wide variety of education concerns. In Nepal, the film explores the lives of Manisha, a girl who offered to leave school when her family desperately needed another worker in the family; Sanju, a girl passionate about science and technology but fears she will be unable to achieve her professional ambitions due to her family’s lack of resources; Aspara, a girl who struggled to decide whether she should leave school in order to get married; and Swarnima, a well-educated girl from a privileged background who uses the radio show she hosts, “Chatting with My Best Friend,” as a way to reach out to girls across Nepal and answer their questions and provide them with advice regarding education. In Uganda, the film explores the lives of Mercy, a girl who fantasizes about writing in her notebook on her first day of school, and Sarah, a girl who dropped out of school after the death of her parents and struggles to return to education later in life.
Though I wish the film had focused more in-depth on only a couple of girls, rather than spending short amounts of time with a variety of different girls, I did appreciate the diversity and differences in experiences and backgrounds explored in the film. By focusing on a wide range of personal stories, To Educate a Girl demonstrated that there is no single reason why so many girls are out of school. The problem is a complex one, and To Educate a Girl highlights those complexities in order to convey a greater understanding of all the variables that must be addressed in order to create viable solutions.
To Educate a Girl is a very hopeful film, and intentionally so. All of the girls profiled end up attending school by the end of the film. Though it would not be accurate to suggest that all girls in Uganda and Nepal (or elsewhere, for that matter) have as much luck as these girls do, I am glad the filmmakers chose the stories that they did. Certainly, the film conveys the significant challenges many girls face when trying to attend school, but by ending on a hopeful note, it sends the message that change is possible, and that UNGEI’s goals are achievable. The state of education around the world does not always feel very hopeful, but To Educate a Girl suggests otherwise. Though change takes time, the stories explored in the film prove that the desired results are ultimately possible.
Filmmakers Frederick Rendina and Oren Rudavsky were present and conducted a Q&A after the film. In my experience, Q&A’s can be hit-or-miss — sometimes it’s really better to let a piece of work stand on its own and be open to interpretation, rather than explore all aspects of the artist’s intent. However, in the case of a documentary like this one, Q&A’s really provide an opportunity to delve deeper into the issue and find out more information than was able to make it into the final cut. Such was the case with Rendina and Rudavsky; their talk-back made the viewing experience so much richer, as they were able to provide additional context and clarification about the film and the filmmaking process.
Though the film focused on grassroots efforts to create change, such as those pioneered by Young Champions in Nepal and the Girls’ Education Movement in Uganda, Rendina and Rudavsky explained that change is also being pushed on the Parliamentary level in both Uganda and Nepal. This indicates that girls’ education is not an issue exclusively championed by teachers or local activists — it is an issue which governments are beginning to understand requires critical and immediate attention.
Additionally, Rendina and Rudavsky explained that school attendance is only one of the issues regarding education that needs to be addressed. There also must be a focus on improving the quality of education. For instance, the film includes an interview with Margaret Ouma Ariokot, the headmistress of Mercy’s school, in which she explains that on the first day of school for the year, only three out of 14 teachers actually showed up for work. She also explains that only one classroom has benches; in other classes, the children have to sit on the floors which are often covered with dirt and dust. Rendina and Rudavsky say that these issues must be addressed as well in the effort to improve education. Children don’t just need schools, they need schools that have adequate resources and teachers devoted to their students and the cause of education. These steps will come later, which is why they were not explored more fully in the film itself, but hearing Rendina and Rudavsky discuss them provided a fuller understanding of precisely what issues schools around the world are facing and what steps will need to be taken to ensure quality education for all children.
To Educate a Girl is a hugely important film, and it’s one that any advocate of global gender justice and education equality must see. In order to bring about the changes we want to see in the world, we must educate ourselves about the facts and the differing variables impacting the state of education today. To Educate a Girl is a tool for such education, and one that is critical to advance understanding and mobilize action. Watch the film online to learn more.