Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's Required? Girl Rising

I had set aside this weekend to host a young friend and her two small children. We were going to visit thrift shops, picnic at a nearby lake, splash in the pool at the Y down the street.

But she called to say she had a new, much needed job. 

So she spent the weekend cleaning hotel rooms, her kids spent the weekend in a relative’s concrete back yard, and I’ve headed off in my kayak.

It hardly seems fair.

But then, much about life is far from fair.

When I was a kid, my grandmother often said, as she sent me off to school: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

I had no clue what she meant.

We lived in a wealthy suburb of New York, where most of my friends had maids or nannies, two cars in the driveway, vacation homes. By seventh grade, or ninth at the latest, most of them would be in private school, at all the best academies.
And I wore hand-me-downs, helped my grandmother drag the shopping cart to Gristedes, a mile away, and tried not to let too many friends know that she watched other people’s kids and did ironing for neighbors to make ends meet.



Yet, the more I see of life, the more I understand what she was saying. I went to great schools. Lived in towns with wonderful libraries. Grew up in a state that made higher education possible for anyone willing to study. Never doubted that I could go to college, even grad school, if I wanted.

I thought of all that as I went with friends this week to watch Girl Rising, a powerful, troubling documentary about nine girls in nine different countries. Each story was written by a writer from the girl’s country, in conversation with the girls themselves, and each was filmed in a way that caught the hopes and struggles of the individual girl . 

Beautiful Suma of Nepal, bonded into labor at six, taught to read by a social worker after long days of work, survived by writing lovely, haunting songs of sorrow. 

Sokha, Cambodian orphan living and working in a city dump, searched for bits of metal to sell, a throw-away child in a throw-away place, until rescued and given home, school, future.

Buoyant Wadley of Haiti: she was seven when the earthquake destroyed her school, and defiant when told only children with money would be able to continue to learn.

Yasmin, of Egypt, tells a police officer the story of a violent attack. She knows where the attacker lives, and could lead the officer to him. Her mother cries for justice, and the officer, though sympathetic, shakes his head sadly: “In this world? No.” That cry for justice, and it's denial, echo in my mind.

Azmira of Ethiopia. Village elders told her widowed mother to marry her off at thirteen, but her older brother intervened, insisting she have the chance to continue in school. Every girl needs a brother like that.

Ruksana lives with her parents and two sisters in a makeshift home on a city street, dreaming of beauty, wondering why some people live in worlds like those she glimpses on tv, while police smash their simple dwelling and leave them homeless in the monsoon rains.

Mariama of Sierre Leone has two mothers, a father, and her own radio show. Joyful, confident, determined Mariama.

The two girls who linger with me are Amina of Afghanistan, and Senna of Peru.

Amina, “a girl masked and muted,” tells a story of servitude and repression. From the age of three she was carrying water to wash men’s hands, scrubbing, serving, working in silence. Sold as bride to her twenty year old cousin when she was just eleven in exchange for money her family spent on a used car for her brother.  Her first son was born nine months later.

Amina was one of two girls whose names were changed, and for safety reasons weren’t able to show their faces, yet her great sorrow, fierce anger and deep determination came through strongly, as did her accusation of all who live in freedom and fail to speak on behalf of those who suffer in silence.

Don’t assume, she says with feeling, that this is a religious issue. Women of her country, of her faith, lived in freedom before, and enjoy freedom in other countries now.

Child marriage and bride prices were banned in Afghanistan in 1921. For decades women were free to go to school, to hold jobs, to move about in freedom. Since 1996, Afghan women have been pawns of patriarchal power, facing violent enforcement of repressive restrictions.

I know almost nothing about the political realities that shape Amina’s life, that hold her in bondage. Does that excuse me?  "Your silence," Amina says, "has already spoken for you."

I find myself trying to see my world through her eyes: small children free to play, teen girls not yet burdened with pregnancy, women able to move and speak in freedom.

And I find myself wondering about that convoluted sentence my grandmother used to say: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

I didn’t know at the time that she was quoting Jesus, speaking in Luke 12:48. She would have known King James version: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."

What have I been given?

Education, opportunity, freedom, resources. 

Time, money, information.

What’s required? How?

The other story that haunts me is that of Senna, young teen from Peru.
Girl Rising: Life in the World's Harshest Town

Her story is set in La Rinconada, a gold-mining town high in the Andes, reportedly the highest city in the world, a thousand feet higher than the highest peaks of the Alps.

Her town, according to her, has more prostitutes than children. No running water, no sewage.

Her father named her for Xena, Warrior Princess, although he couldn’t spell the name. He never went to school, but wanted her to learn all she could. After he was injured in a mining accident, her mother and sister went to work cracking mining waste, looking for small remnants of ore, while Senna convinced the owner of the public outhouse to pay her for coming early every morning to clean the stinking holes, so she could work, avoid the lure of prostitution, and still remain in school.

As she lost her father to depression, then death, Senna discovered poetry and began to write her own.

Watching her, her determination, her struggle, I found myself wondering, as I wonder often: Why was I born here, in a beautiful place, with good health care nearby, excellent schools, clean bathrooms, green lawns?

I sit in my air-conditioned house, watch the hummingbirds visit my honeysuckle vine, wonder why I have the right to vote, to work, to drive, to read. To wear what I want, go where I want. 

I have the world at my fingertips – literally. FIOS internet connection. Functional HP laptop.

I find myself wondering, as I review the  movie, rethink the girls' stories: what are you asking?, the organization that created the film in partnership with CNN and Intel, has started a fund for girls’ education. Donations to the fund are distributed between seven other partner organizations, including CARE USA, World Vision, Partners in Health, Room to Read.

It costs sixty dollars a year for school fees and uniforms in many places.

A year of teacher's college can cost less than a thousand dollars. 

So yes, money is required.

But more than that.

Carrying those nine girls’ voices with me, I find myself humbled, thankful, hopeful, sad.

I want justice for each of them. In this world. Soon.

And I want choices, and beauty, and safety, and love.

Schools. Teachers. Books. Pens.

How much would we need to give to make that possible?

This is the last in a series on women and girls: