“The International Day of the Girl”, marked on October 11th was indeed a celebration of the girl child, a day that was solely dedicated and used to discuss the challenges girls globally face in the 21st century. A hand-selected few, on this day, got the experience of an unforgettable lifetime memory as the White House opened her doors to the girl stars of the CNN documentary “We Will Rise”. CNN’s new film on global girls’ education, “We Will Rise,” which debuted at the White House on this Day of the Girl, tells the stories of these girls. The Inspiring film chronicles the lives of some of the girls that First Lady Michelle Obama visited this past summer in Liberia and Morocco, two countries in Africa where many girls struggle to get an education. She was joined in her travels by the actors and activists Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, who are also passionate about girls’ education, as well as CNN anchor Isha Sesay.
This movie serves as part of her effort to work on global girls’ education as first lady, which includes the Let Girls Learn initiative , launched last year by the Obama administration as a global effort to give girls the education they need to fulfill their potential and lift up their families, communities and countries.
The We Will Rise girl stars whose stories were told in the documentary sat on a panel with CNN Journalist Isha Sesay and Actress, Activist Meryl Streep prior to the premier screening at the White House.
Ambassador Susan Rice gave the welcoming remarks for the panel: “ As the president always says, ‘the single best indicator of whether a nation will succeed is in how it treats its women.’” President obama has prioritized educating girls in all diplomacy and development culminating in this year’s first of its kind U.S global Strategy to empower adolescent girls. Through Let Girls Learn, all girls can get quality education and reach their potential. We are attacking the problem from all angles. Rather than just confronting educational barriers like teacher shortage or school reform, we are confronting poverty, addressing lack of access to healthcare, gender-based violence to meet these challenges- we are taking a comprehensive approach,” she said. Adding to this, she pointed out that partnerships in public and private sector have contributed to the initiative, from USAID to institutions like the World Bank, to nations like Japan and Mexico, organizations like IBM and universities like Georgetown are all partners involved in the initiative. Her remarks also touched on the challenges girls face: “Even as we witness remarkable progress, young women continue to confront unimaginable challenges,” she said. “Girls who must walk miles in unforgivable terrain just to get to school, violent extremists who force women into marriage, rebel fighters who use rape as a tactic of war, millions of girls living as refugees from Syria to South Sudan; we can’t let these challenges rob our generation of young women or their future,” she stated. She concluded the talk by stating that although great headway has been made, there is more to do, urging everyone that hears the stories the girls share on the panel or that watch the documentary, to be inspired by it.
Liberian girl Raphina Felee, 20, who participated in a Peace Corps program called Girls Leading Our World. Fouzya Toukart, 20 from Morocco, a girl who speaks five languages and has her BA in English. Karima Lakouz, also a Morrocan who was a participant in the State Department’s TechGirls initiative. Outspoken Liberian girl, 16 year-old Janet Jackson. These are four extraordinary women who have been Let Girls Learn beneficiaries, on the panel with Meryl Streep moderated by Isha Sesay. The girls shared about their lives to their cohorts in the audience and the rest of the White House invitees:
“I got to learn about coming to the U.S from my peace corps friends. It is my first time to leave my country and also ride a plane,” Raphina said. For Fouzya, when she got the news about coming to the White House, she said she didn’t believe it was possible, but yes it is! because she is here and so happy. Karima, who calls herself the big dreamer, said when she found out, she was in her neighbors’ house who didnt have any wifi and so she had missed the whatsapp message from her Peace Corps chaperon. She later got the call from her, telling her that she was going to DC. “Such a shock,” she said. “Let me extend my appreciation to Mrs Obama. She made me who I am today,” outspoken 16 year-old Janet said. “The news about the White House was like a dream to me,” she added, “when I got the call I was like WOW!”
Journalist Isha Sesay posed the question to the girls about what it is like to go to school in their regions; the answers all shared a similar difficulty. Refina, who goes to in Kakata, Liberia said from her house to her school, it takes her an hour and thirty minutes to make it. She said that the walk is not even the most challenging part of going to school, but rather the fact that her school is under-resourced with no science labs and not equipped with study materials. Isha Sesay mentioned that she visited Rephina’s school and indeed such is the case. School experience for Fouza who comes from a small Moroccan village says that hers was equally challenging, but grateful that she is a new graduate at just 20 with her BA in English. “When I think about the past or how hard it’s been, it just gives me the push to look forward to better things in my future,” she said. Karima, who studied electricity, said in primary/middle school, girls were always the brightest with the highest grade, but surprisingly now that she is in a tech school studying electricity, girls are so rare in the classroom. She described how tedious it is for her with her studies, very tiring, she says. School is from 8am to 12pm then 2pm to 6pm and study on sundays from 8am-12pm. “I am looking for the best schools in engineering program so I can apply for a scholarship,” she said. For Janet, school is not easy. She also said, “Our school is not well-equipped, we have no access to computers and no school materials to learn with.” She added that it is difficult to create interests in school when, with the distance one has to walk and how long it takes, getting there is so strenuous that by the time one gets to school, their uniform is wet from sweat.
What is the most difficult thing about being a girl? What is the most beautiful thing about being a girl? A question that all girls might want to ask themselves, was what CNN journalist Isha asked these panelists. “The responsibility to take care of the home, of your little brothers and everyone,” Refina said is the hardest part for her at this time. Fouza said, for girls, “It’s like just stay at home and do not bother yourself to become anything great because you are not going to change things or succeed. You are going to lose your time and energy.” —A depiction of her experience as a girl who is rising beyond all these odds. “The most beautiful thing about being a girl,” she goes on to say- “ being a girl means powerful, it means being a challenger, that you can do anything, being a girl means being a woman and everything beautiful.” Such a comeback attitude that is! The room brightened with a clap, and then she said, “If you educate a boy- you educate a man; if you educate a woman-you educate a generation. So girls need education more than men do!” “Toughest thing about being a girl,” Karima said,” is the stereotype of society just like Fouza started. You are destined to be a wife and have children, which is not right because both boy or girl are humans and they both deserve to be educated. For example, we have a girl from our Morocco team, she is going to start her own garage and we thought only boys did it.” For Janet, she spoke about the value a woman gives to her body and her role in the home. “When a woman values her body she will always go to the place she expects herself to go,” she said. She was sure to also send a message to girls saying that the opportunities girls have now should be used wisely because of uncertainty of the future or in her words- “We don’t know how the country will be like with the next president that will come; men need to know that women are important in the society.”
All these girls had unique experiences with the First Lady, and their awe of meeting Mrs Obama could not have been more similar. They all revered her and see her as their inspiration to work hard and be great. She was described with adjectives like humble, simple, amazing and inspirational. Fouza said, “One of the quotes which she said, that I can never forget is that “there is no magical dust; it just takes hard work.”
While the documentary influencers Meryl streep, Isha Sesay and Mrs Obama, were sitting in the cozy West Wing room of the White House with these girls and watching the screening of “We Will Rise”, many sniffs were heard and tears were seen as the young, African girls watched their realities play in front of their eyes.
The undeniable force of power, hope and freedom could be felt in the room, as the movie screened to the theme song by Andra Day called “Rise Up”. Just like the song- these girls have felt like dying at some point in their lives, but they have Risen up like the day, unafraid, and one can bet that if they could, they would do it a thousand times again; they absolutely would Rise Up in spite of all odds.