By M. E. Jones
HARVARD -- The film "Girl Rising" tells the stories of nine girls in developing countries where education is hard to come by for the poor of both genders and far more so for girls.
Presented by a nonprofit group called "10X10," and screened recently at The Bromfield School, the stories send a powerful message about the importance of educating girls and of supporting the cause, which is what the organization, and the film are all about.
Yasmin is from Cairo, Egypt. She's 12, a victim of rape. With violence depicted only in drawings, the tale is told from the child's perspective. In her view, she is not a victim but a warrior who fought a fierce battle with an evil man.
The scene opens in a police station. Yasmin is being questioned by two officers. Her father is in jail, she tells them and her mother has no money. She does not go to school. "We sell tea at the bridge." The policeman says: "She's a street kid." Yasmin denies it. "No, I'm a super hero!" she insists.
She describes what happened. It was hot. She and her friend went to get juice. They paid a man with a donkey cart to drive them but he turned off on a different road. Her friend ran away but Yasmin wasn't scared. "I am strong, I can fight," she reasoned.
The man brought her to his house. His wife was there. He promised juice but the drink he gave her was sour. He drank beer. Yasmin didn't like that. He promised to take her home but did not.
"He said he wanted to be with me," she says. The man drew his sword. She dodged, drew her knife and fought with him. "A true super hero does not kill," she tells the police. She aimed to teach the man that girls are strong!
"He was a bad man, he left me no choice," she says. They fought for a long time. He begged her to spare his life, so she did. "Your mother said there was blood on your clothes," the policeman says. He asks her to show him her knife.
Yasmin hands it to him. "Yes, it was a hard battle," she says. One of the officers gives her cookies. "I hate to put a smart girl like you in jail," he says. But the man with the cart has money and can offer bribes. "Sorry, that's life." He speaks kindly to Yasmin, asks if she can show him where the man lived. Yes, she can. He has a daughter, younger than she is, the officer says. "I hope she can learn to be a super hero."
Statistics: 50 percent of sexual assaults in the part of the world Yasmin comes from are on girls under 15. It's so risky on the streets that parents keep their daughters at home or marry them off young. Yasmin is 13 now, engaged to be married. The man who raped her is still free.
Azmera is from Yilmann Densa, Ethiopia. Not yet 14, she feels "trapped," she says.
A voice-over tells of the myth of Icarus, how he tried to fly to the sun on wax wings. It was a desperate act and the story teaches a lesson about limits.
Azmera's life is no myth, but like the other girls' stories, hers teaches a lesson. Azmera is her mother's "only living daughter," in a family that once consisted of two girls, a boy and a "loving husband." The man, Azmera's father, died, as did her older sister, and there are no photos, no drawings, no letters to remember them by. There's no money, either, and survival is a constant struggle many such families lose.
Urged to marry off her remaining daughter at a young age, "to give her a chance to live," Azmera's mother "opens the door to a 20-year-old stranger" and gives her daughter to him. "This is how it was done." This was the way when Azmera's mother was a girl and for her grandmother, too. Although the legal age for marriage is 18, girls as young as seven were married, then. Law, however, often loses out to custom and perceived necessity. Married too young, girls might be "split" by their husbands, but 13 is considered a "safe age."
But Azmera is saved from such a fate. Her brother steps in. He will work and take care of the family now. His sister will not marry the stranger but will stay home. Even though he can't read himself, he will send her to school, he says. Together, they refused this marriage. "We are a country of split girls," the female narrator says. But education can change that. "Every time you open a book, you lift yourself up."
Statistics: The number one cause of death in Ethiopia for girls 15-19 is childbirth. Nothing will change if old cycles of poverty, ignorance, violence continue.
But there is wisdom and hope in another set of statistics. Education can and does effect change. Educated girls marry later. Educated mothers have fewer children, their kids are healthier and go to school, daughters as well as sons. Fathers, too, must "invest" in this cycle of change "so their daughters can dream" of a brighter future, the narrator concludes.
To be continued.