This post originally appeared on the blog Women & Hollywood.
It is written by Girl Rising Chief Creative Officer Martha Adams.
How can the 130 million girls missing from classrooms around the world get the education they deserve? That’s all I wanted to ask the three Imams sitting across from me nearly a year ago, and the question we planned to explore in the documentary we were filming, “We Will Rise.” I had just arrived in this tiny village outside Marrakech to film with a 13-year-old girl named Hanane. We were unpacking our gear when there was a knock at the door.
The Imams sat on cushions on one side of the living room. Soukaina, a brilliant young linguist, and I sat on the other. Hot tea in glass cups sat cooling on the table in between. Soukaina began, meticulously selecting each word, while the men sat quietly listening.
I’ve spent a good part of the past seven years asking community leaders around the world how we can break down the barriers that have long prevented girls from becoming educated. I began this journey when I first joined Girl Rising to help produce a film on the power of girls’ education and ever since I’ve been on the look-out for extraordinary stories about trailblazing girls and the families and communities who support them. “Firsts” is what we like to call them — girls who are the first to read, to write, to graduate from high school. Girls who are the first to be valued as something more than a bride or a mother in waiting.
Soukaina explained to the religious leaders that we were a documentary crew accompanying Meryl Streep to Morocco for a CNN Film about Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative. We’d come to this home in particular because a father had decided to send his youngest daughter to school. His older daughters weren’t afforded an education so the question was: Why now?
It’s an important question to ask. This seemingly small shift in this one modest household may have a colossal impact down the road. Decades of research proves that educated girls marry later, have fewer children, and are able to earn significantly more. In short, educating girls is a critical step in addressing many of the most vexing development issues of our time.
The Imams were impressed that we’d come from so far. Now it was their turn to ask the questions: Who was Meryl Streep? Why had Barack Obama’s wife selected Morocco? What about the boys in their nation? They wished us good luck filming before saying goodbye.
Meryl soon arrived and, as if friends for life, joined Hanane’s mother in the kitchen, to prepare for the Ramadan feast. Tucked behind the wall that kept me out of frame, I listened to their giggles and beautiful attempts to cross the language barrier. Meryl was there to better understand how progress takes hold and in two days’ time she would join CNN’s Isha Sesay, actor/activist Freida Pinto, and the First Lady to host a town hall meeting for change-maker girls. The first half of the town hall would be covered by the national and global press and the 24 courageous girls, Hanane included, would have the opportunity to share their experiences facing down the various forms of gender discrimination they’ve encountered while growing up in Morocco. But such an event seemed implausible that evening, from the confines of Hanane’s home.
The sun now gone, Meryl and the family crowded around the table. Hanane’s grandmother was the first to chime in. When she was young not a single woman was educated. Today was different. She smiled, raised her hand in the air, as if waving in celebration, and proclaimed her support for her granddaughter. Meryl beamed then turned her attention to Mohamed, Hanane’s father. With his youngest son cuddled on his lap, Hanane’s father Mohamed told how they used to live in the Atlas Mountains and the distance was too far for Hanane to get safely to school. So they moved to this village, and while it was very expensive and he had to work two jobs, Hanane was now able to attend school.
Meryl listened as our cameras recorded the entire scene. She shared how education had made an enormous difference in her own life. She talked of life for her grandmother and assured Mohamed that this was a global issue affecting us all.
Hanane’s father, tired from one job and needing to go to the next, added one last reflection: his family had been trapped in a cycle of poverty. “If I don’t give my children a chance, the cycle doesn’t end,” he observed.
In saying goodbye, I asked if I could take a quick peek at where Hanane kept her things. One room had been closed off during our visit by only a thin tapestry, just two feet from where we were standing. In a hushed tone, Hanane told me we couldn’t go in that room: “My older sister is in there and she cannot be seen,” she explained.
I thought I misunderstood. Could she repeat that? This entire time, one of Hanane’s older sisters had been on the other side of this curtain? Soukaina and I turned to her father. Mohammed explained that she was married to a conservative man who forbid her from being seen. Free of cameras and our heads covered, we promised we would be discreet but the answer was no.
Hanane’s sister heard this conversation, just as she had heard everything else that evening. My heart sank. One young woman on one path while her sister was on another.
The film team was distressed that night. We were strangers in this land, new to the complexities of this culture. But we held true to the belief that giving girls like Hanane a chance to be heard was, in fact, the right thing to do. That this trip, this film, this journey with the First Lady would in some way help fuel the world’s efforts to forever change the way nations value girls.
Martha Adams helped produce the film at the center of the Girl Rising campaign and CNN Films’ “We Will Rise.” She frequently speaks on the subject of girls’ empowerment, radical change, and the critical role storytelling plays.