Educate girls and you will change the world.
That is the message behind Girl Rising, a documentary out this month from Academy Award-nominated director Richard Robbins. The film chronicles the unique struggles nine girls from nine different countries face as they fight for what many girls in the United States take for granted: an education.
The featured girls come from the biting mountaintops of La Rinconada, Peru and the urban squalor of Kolkata, India. They range from little Wadley, just seven when the earthquake in Haiti razes her home and school, to teenagers like Suma from Nepal, who was sold into bonded labor as a young girl and never taught to read. They have been sexually abused, forced into marriage, and saddled with impossible poverty.
"It's a simple fact," Liam Neeson narrates in the film. "There is nobody more vulnerable than a girl."
Each story is told as an individual unit narrated by well-known actresses such as Selena Gomez, Kerry Washington, and Meryl Streep, and between each, Neeson narrates facts and figures. They are shocking - 66 million girls around the world don't attend school, a child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five - but it is the faces and the individual stories that you remember.
Senna, 14, lives 17,000 feet up in the Andes, on the side of an ancient volcano. Her father, who passed away after toiling in the gold mines there, named her after Xena, the warrior princess. But he had only heard the name, not seen the spelling, so she is Senna. A warrior princess in her own right. Her father insisted she attend school, and in that way she is lucky. It is, at the very least, a mental escape from the abject poverty in which she and her family are trapped. Senna is happiest when she is lost in the world of poetry.
"Each page opened a world," her narrator says in the film.
Senna's dad wanted her to be an engineer, because in the Andes, they hold the power. And by the end of her story, she vows to be one, but not in the typical sense. She will be an engineer of words.
"I will be the engineer my father wanted me to be," her narrator, Salma Hayek, says. "I will be a poet."
The stories are heartbreaking, but they're meant to be inspiring. We can help these girls - who really represent all girls - and education is the answer, the film says. Education can help end the cycle of poverty. It can help prevent toddlers from being forced into marriage. Education is a powerful tool and the world knows it, the film says. We just need to use it.
"One of the things that is most exciting," Robbins, who used to work at ABC News, said during a recent phone interview, "is that it's not one of the global problems we don't know the solution to. It's not AIDS. It's not global warming. We're not casting about. We know how to fix it. We're dealing with implementation. We know what a good school and a good teacher look like and how powerful that can be."
Robbins said the idea for the film emerged in 2006, when he was working on another project, but it really progressed about two and a half years ago, in 2010. Filming began in February of last year. They spent between five and 10 days filming with each girl.
Each girl - with two exceptions for safety reasons - plays herself in the film. Their stories were each crafted by a writer from their own country and then narrated by an actress.