Dr Amita N. Vyas
My eldest daughter is 14. In many countries around the world, that is exactly the age when being a girl becomes dangerous to her life.
In many parts of the world that means she is likely to drop out of school, suffer from anaemia, to be married off to an older man, have children long before her little body is ready (putting her at great risk for maternal death), and it’s possible, very possible, that she could be that one out of three girls around the world who experience physical or sexual violence. As the mother of a 14 year old girl, that is simply and unequivocally unacceptable.
My adolescent daughter has big dreams, and whether you live in the suburbs of Washington DC, or the remote Atlas Mountains of Morocco, or in the poorest townships outside Capetown, or in the beautiful desert of Oman, or in any part of India, adolescent girls everywhere are dreaming big for themselves. I know this! I have sat with them. I have listened to them. I have heard the conviction and the drive in their voices, and the thoughtful ways in which they envision their futures.
So then what’s the problem? Well, we need everyone else in her life to dream as big for her as she does for herself. For every adolescent girl around the world, her parents, her teachers, her community leaders, her healthcare providers, her siblings, her everyone needs to believe in and invest in her. And how we do we change that? Storytelling.
When I was 19 years old, I read a book – it told the inspirational story of a physician who travelled across the globe to care for the poorest of the poor. Six months later, I boarded a plane (with a few friends who were easily influenced by my naïve passion and enthusiasm) for Calcutta India (a city where I knew no one), and we literally knocked on the door of Mother Teresa’s Missionary in Calcutta India.
Twenty-seven years later, I still remember the address and knocking on the door of 54A Lower Circular Road. That one story I read changed my heart, my mind, and my soul. That one story of a person who had the courage to work among the poorest and most vulnerable inspired me to take action. That is the power of storytelling.
Storytelling can change the way we think. Stories that capture and hold our attention, and transport us into someone else’s world, can move us to tears, build empathy, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviours, and even inspire us to make a difference. And the science shows that emotive storytelling can actually change our brain chemistry by releasing cortisol and oxytocin, and most often, change our brains for the better.
During my experience working in Mother Teresa’s Mission for the Dying and Destitute, a place where men and women spent their last days and weeks of life, I spent countless hours listening to women as they shared their life stories. As I bathed these women, as I fed them, as I cleaned their bed sores, and caressed their aches, I listened. I listened to their stories. And that set me on my journey to public health, and led me to the most powerful truth – that investing in girls and women to ensure they are healthy, educated, and free from violence is the greatest investment opportunity of our time.
Women and girls make up half of the world’s population? Ok, so that makes them important. And yet, too many are deprived of the opportunity to an education and to basic health care services. Studies show that women reinvest up to 90 percent of their incomes back into their families, compared to just 30 to 40 percent by men. Mothers provide better nutrition and health care and spend more on their children. Investing in women and girls creates long-term social and economic benefits for all individuals, their communities, and the world as a whole.
So that makes sense, right? If we provide education and health services in communities around the world, problem solved! Well, there are countless high quality organisations and programmes working on the ground to provide clinics, vaccines, schools, books, scholarships, family planning, nutritious meals and other resources for girls and women.
However, every day we know that millions of girls don’t have the opportunity to access these resources. The efforts of these life-saving and life-changing organisations will only flourish and will only have deep impact if we ensure that girls are actually making it in the door. Quite simply, we need to tackle the upfront barrier of changing how girls are valued. We want to help people (fathers, brothers, mothers, community leaders) to dream as big for girls as they do for boys.
Girl Rising is a film that uses the power of storytelling to change the hearts and minds of people. Girl Rising was produced because of the growing data that educating girls has a positive impact on almost every indicator for poverty: from health, to food production, to governance and social stability, and perhaps most important of all, GDP growth.
And that was a big story that needed to be told. So Girl Rising set out to change the way parents and presidents around the world see their girls by creating a film with powerful girl-focussed content, and fueling a social campaign that engages grassroots advocates, policy experts, political and corporate leaders and every citizen of the world.
Since its release, the Girl Rising film has grown into a thriving global movement, with over 22,000 screenings and thousands of grassroots supporters in over 158 countries leading change for girls. And we’ve seen remarkable things happen as a result.
We are sitting on a huge opportunity to transform the world we live in, and investing in girls will make the world a safer, more stable, more prosperous, and a healthier place, more quickly than through any other development intervention. When we invest in girls and women, we invest in the people who invest in everyone else.