Coincidences never cease to amaze me. While I was reading Tina Rosenberg’s remarkable book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (2011), I rented a video, Girl Rising (2013), that just became available. I am almost sure that Rosenberg and the producers of Girl Rising do not know about each other and yet the stories complement each other so well. Girl Rising is a non-profit fundraising organization that distributes money to worthy causes that support the advancement of girls throughout the world—in this case, a girl’s right to an education.
The dilemma is that whatever horrific things are happening throughout the world, that information still needs to be collected and passed on to those who might do something about it; that is the simple reality. The problem today—with consolidated corporate media and the need to operate under capitalist principles—is that anyone dedicated to getting the word out must find the money for production and distribution, even for the noblest of causes. Therefore, the producers of Girl Rising took a chance and gambled that money that might have been used to open about 100 schools around the world, would be better spent producing this film in the hopes of raising even more money for these girls. In the case of Join the Club, Rosenberg had to use hard work and her reputation to convince a publishing company to promote her book so it could be read by people like me.
Girl Rising tells the story of nine girls and how they got access to an education and resist cultural pressures that would deprive them of it.
Sokha is from Cambodia, orphaned, and was found collecting recycling at a landfill to survive. This is a common story throughout the world and reminds me of the documentary Waste Land (2010) about an artist (Vik Muniz) who brought the public’s attention to garbage workers in Brazil. This story is a bit short on details, but this girl dreamt of wearing a crisp school uniform like the other girls and it came true.
Wadley is from Haiti and went to school until the big earthquake that devastated that country. The realities of money then became apparent as only those who had it could still send their children to school. Here we see Wadley—sometimes girls acted in their own stories; sometimes actors were hired—defiantly refusing to leave the classroom and the teacher finally gives in and lets her stay.
Suma is from Nepal and although it was officially banned, a kind of indentured servitude is still practiced. Suma tells her story through song about the three masters she had to serve starting at age six. They and their families all treated her badly until she met a teacher who convinced the third one to release her. She then worked to help free others by putting public pressure on these masters. This story is an example of what Rosenberg calls “The Social Cure”. When people are organized and can create a perception of something being popular or extremely unpopular, they can use the power of the crowd to motivate people to do the right thing.
Yasmin from Egypt is a story of a girl that was lured away by a man to be raped. In this case, she was able to valiantly fend off her attacker with a makeshift weapon. She refrained from killing the man and this scene shows her with her mother explaining their story to the police. The political reality is that this man was well-to-do and so the family could get some financial compensation, but not the kind of proper justice the family had hoped for. The man is still free and so a pseudonym is used for the girl in this story. It is because of things like this that families are motivated to marry their girls off young and forego school.
Asmera is from Ethiopia and she did not have an unpleasant childhood or family life, but it does illustrate how personal tragedy can devastate a family. Her father died and then an older sister, so the village elders were putting pressure on the widow to “save” Asmera by having her marry young. She was rescued by her older brother who finally convinced the mother not to let her marry and to continue her schooling.
Ruksana is from Bengal, India and her family lives in a makeshift house on a sidewalk in the city. Education is a priority for this family but living on the streets as they do is not safe for girls so the mother and the two girls were sent to a shelter for a time. There is one happy moment when she is brought to a shop and the father spends some money on her so she can have color markers and a tablet for her drawings which she uses to express her dreams of a better life.
Senna lives high in the Andes in Peru and uses poetry to express herself. Her father had a tough job as a miner and hoped for better things for Senna by insisting she go to school. He fell ill and died, but Senna (named after Xena, the Warrior Princess) managed to get a good job and become an “engineer”, a class of people who can make a living without working in the mines.
Mariama lives in Sierra Leone and is actually a regular teenager. She got a job at a radio station giving other girls advice that really helped. This is another illustration of the “The Social Cure”. The thing about giving advice is that it will only be listened to if someone respects the person giving it. Being a teenage girl herself, Mariama had credibility and could affect real change in other girls. Unfortunately, peer pressure from her uncle’s friends, compelled him to forbid her from working at the station anymore. Fortunately, she was able to persuade her uncle’s wife to help her get him to change his mind and recognize the important work she was doing.
Amina from Afghanistan is another whose identity had to be kept secret for her own safety. It is a simple story, but due to the severe policies of the Taliban, girls in much of the country are denied access to education. There are some organizations making headway and getting at least some of girls surreptitiously back to school.
Since the U.S., U.K. and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is ostensibly to combat terrorism, it is worth mentioning that Rosenberg described at length some possibilities for a “Social Cure” in that arena as well. As it happens, many of the young men willing to martyr themselves and promote violent action are London Muslims alienated by the surrounding Westerners and their culture. This kind of isolation means that any rash or radical ideas by compatriots (or imams at the pulpit) gain more credibility than one would normally expect and gets reinforced within the group until they are motivated to do something extreme to look good in the eyes of their peers. Western authorities make the mistake of not understanding this dynamic and not taking obvious steps to mitigate it. Fortunately, there are some organizations making some progress, paralleling similar efforts to eliminate gang culture in Europe and North America.
Rosenberg spends a lot of time describing one success story of Otpor! (Resistance!), a Serbian group run by young people and the key to president Slobodan Milošević’s ouster. There are many reasons for its success involving “The Social Cure”, but what was most remarkable is how young some of the participants were. In one instance, when the police were cracking down particularly hard, one of the leaders found a few 10-year-old girls to place stickers in the windows of the prominent businesses in Belgrade near the Otpor! headquarters; the police didn’t have a clue. I can just imagine the pride of these girls participating in this great adventure, mugging in front of the camera for a publicity shot. To the best of my knowledge, such a shot only exists in my imagination.
Regarding the stories in Girl Rising, it is hard not to be moved by them and I personally support sincere efforts to give girls a proper education and freedom from poverty. But having a carefully-honed skepticism made the production of this film feel a little fishy. Because of the agendas of certain institutions, carefully crafted messages have a distinctive character. This one has a kind of slick blandness that you see in productions that are being careful not to offend anyone in the hopes of gaining a wide audience.
One of the first things I found out about Girl Rising is that it does not conduct any of the logistics of programs that support girls; it is strictly a fund-raising organization and distributes the money evenly among a number of organizations doing actual work in the field. It is as though it is a self-appointed public relations arm of these organizations. These organizations are referred to as partners, but partnerships imply a two-way relationship. Visiting each of the websites of these “partners” did not give me any sign that they acknowledged Girl Rising. Except for whatever publicity the film offered, it does not appear that any other service is provided to these organizations. Therfore, if you are inclined to contribute, it would make more sense to contribute to these partners directly. The convenience of donating through Girl Rising will incur two fees: a 5% fee to a company that provides the financial transaction software application for the website and another 3.5% fee to a financial services company that disseminates the money as directed. The partners themselves, though, seem worthy of attention: A New Day Cambodia, CARE, Girl Up/United Nations Foundation, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, Room to Read and World Vision. I should add that Plan International has been tracking a story about 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted from their school in April. They are still at large and PI is attempting to pressure the Nigerian government to make a more concerted effort to get them back.
The other disturbing thing about Girl Rising is the heavy corporate sponsorship. Intel is a Founding Partner and a number of companies including Bank of America, Charles Schwab, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are called Mission Allies. I single out these companies because these “too big to fail” financial giants have had a big PR problem after the unpopular U.S. government bailout. It should be understood that although these corporations have budgets for improving their image, their obligation to stockholders means they cannot expend more than token funds on philanthropic endeavors unless it also affords some opportunity for market expansion.
See also: The “V” Word