- To Educate a Girl
This documentary film highlights the educational struggles of many girls throughout the world through the portrayal of a selected group of girls in Nepal and Uganda—two countries coping with the effects of poverty and recent conflicts. It opens with the words of Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, condemning the exclusion of millions of girls from school globally and challenging governments to ensure equal access to education by 2015. He highlights educating girls as the key to solving global development problems, which sets the film’s tone in advocating for this goal. To help achieve the goal of equal access to education, the UN established the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which commissioned this film, along with UNICEF.
The film depicts the stories of girls to showcase three UNGEI/UNICEF initiatives and the changes they are effecting in girls’ lives. One initiative is the Girls’ Education Movement (GEM) clubs, which are active across East Africa (there are over a thousand in Uganda). A similar program across South Asia that is portrayed in the film mobilizes young men and women as “young champions” to encourage children, especially girls, in their communities to attend school. The third education initiative the film portrays is a youth-oriented radio program, Chatting with my Best Friend, which provides advice about problems that children and young people face in Nepal. The film introduces viewers to Manisha, who cannot go to school in Nepal because she has to work in the fields to support her three sisters in their education; her situation is contrasted with other Nepalese girls, who are avid listeners of the program. One girl, Aspara, writes to the show and receives a reply that she presents to her parents, which is shown to have convinced them of Aspara’s need to delay marriage so that she can fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. The radio program also sends her booklets on “life skills,” which, she explains, helped her to have confidence in talking to her parents and resulted in their agreeing to delay her marriage. In Uganda, the film focuses on Mercy, who experiences her first day in school at age 6, after her parents are persuaded by a GEM village campaign to enroll her in it. Another Ugandan named Sarah, whose parents have been killed by rebels in northern Uganda, finds distraction from her troubles in her studies and is supported by the school’s GEM club.
Through these stories, the film touches on, yet does not fully address, the multiple barriers that girls face in getting to and staying at school, such as poverty, early marriage, and pregnancy. There is a particular emphasis on poverty and the need for many children to work to earn income or to support the household through unpaid domestic work, but the film fails to examine [End Page 181] these economic conditions that affect girls in the programs it showcases. The emphasis is very much on the perceived need to persuade parents to send their daughters to school, which places the blame and responsibility on them, rather than examining the structural factors that have led to these conditions of poverty in the first place. For instance, at the community campaign in Uganda, parents are galvanized to sign up their daughters for school on the following Monday, while being sold uniforms and stationery that we have just learned they cannot afford. The film does not draw attention to these seeming contradictions in which the program is engaged.
Meanwhile, in Nepal, the young champions go from house to house demanding to know why parents are not sending their children to school. When a mother explains that her son says that the teachers beat them, she is aggressively asked why she herself didn’t go to the school to address the issue. These young champions pressure the mother into agreeing to send her son to school, but there is no examination of the likely caste hierarchies at play in this interaction. These are Dalit communities “who don’t send their...