Girl Rising, a documentary directed by Richard E. Robbins, was the focus of a recent screening hosted by the Interdisciplinary Society for International Development (ISID). Held in the newly renovated Innis College Theatre, the documentary night on January 29 was the first of two related sessions on gender and development. Nandita Perumal, Co-Chair of ISID shares “ISID aims to bring together faculty and students working on similar development-related topics across multiple fields of study. Each year we try to choose a cross-cutting theme in order to provide an avenue for interdisciplinary discussions and gender is an ideal topic as it permeates the fields of Development and Health”.
The documentary features vignettes from 9 girls, each from a different part of the world, (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru, Sierra Leone) sharing their personal stories of oppression, resistance and eventual triumph. Each girl worked together with a writer from her home nation to write a script for an on-screen dramatization of their lives, documenting struggles including the lack of access to education, sexual abuse, poverty, arranged marriage, and human trafficking.
Despite the tragedies they endured, each story ends on a positive note and shows the capacity of human agency to write. Kristy Hackett, a PhD student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a co-organizer of the event, highlighted: “In the development literature, promoting inclusion, gender equity and women’s rights are framed as the key to addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and expediting global development beyond 2015. This has important implications for how global health and development programs are funded, to whom they are targeted, and how they are designed, implemented and evaluated.”
The event also featured an opening keynote and closing remarks by Dr. Lauren Classen, a recent graduate from the Medical Anthropology PhD program at the University of Toronto. She raised several critiques of the film, including the undeniable Hollywood-level production value. At times, the film felt less like a documentary and more like an extended commercial or public service announcement. It doesn’t help that it featured voiceovers from celebrity heavyweights including Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Selena Gomez, Liam Neeson, Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington and Alicia Keys; or that before the final credits rolled, there was a fundraising pitch for Plan International, CARE, World Vision and Partners in Health.
The film also painted a persuasive picture of the power of educating girls and the ripple effects it can create to improve the rest of society. It channels that all too familiar adage and critical tenet of the ‘girl effect’, that when you educate a girl, not only does it empower and benefit her, but it improves the quality of life for her family and community. It’s a tempting tale, but it runs the risk of obscuring the structural and institutional aspects of racism, sexism, classism and other oppressive forces present in our globalized society, which create and exacerbate inequities and put women and girls in the Global South in precarious and vulnerable circumstances.
Perumal shares: “Many development programs advocate for female empowerment through education, which is why films like “Girl Rising” have garnered so much attention recently. We hope that the perspectives presented by our moderator, encouraged students to think critically about the implications and critiques of having a singular narrative for female education and empowerment.”
Those watching Girl Rising should be wary of the simplistic way it portrays education and empowerment of girls as a panacea for the world’s ills. As the famous writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so astutely observed, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Education is a critical and necessary first step but divorced from real structural changes, it is by no means the end.
ISID will be hosting another session later this spring to further explore how gender and development intersect – check out their website for more details: https://utisid.wordpress.com/.
Anjum Sultana is a Masters of Public Health student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health specializing in Social and Behavioural Health Sciences and Global Health. Follow her on twitter at @anjumsultana.