Want to Save the World?

Many girls in the developing world will grow up without ever entering a classroom. The Girl Rising campaign aims to change that. We asked Holly Gordon, the campaign's executive director, to tell us how.
By: /
September 23, 2013
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October 11th is the International Day of the Girl. To mark the date and raise awareness of the complex challenges confronting many girls in the developing world, communities across Canada and around the globe will show the film Girl Rising. This film anchors an innovative global action campaign for girls education, founded by award-winning journalists at The Documentary Group and Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Productions, along with strategic partner, Intel Corporation. Girl Rising has a clear message: putting more girls in school should be a global priority.

Eliminating gender disparity in education is one of the Millennium Development Goals. As part of OpenCanada’s In Depth series analyzing the future of the MDGs and the priorities of various stakeholders in the post-2015 conversation, we asked Girl Rising Executive Director Holly Gordon to explain what makes educating girls fundamental to development, how the Girl Rising film project took shape, and where the campaign goes from here.  

“Educate girls, change the world” is a powerful slogan. Why should the international community focus on educating girls in the developing world?  

You’re right. It is a powerful slogan. What is interesting to note is that the team behind Girl Rising first arrived at the issue of girls’ education through a much broader investigation: finding the best intervention in breaking cycles of poverty. It turned out to be girls’ education. Experts we spoke to consistently pointed to the long term benefits to society that come from investing in girls, including reduced poverty, child mortality, population growth, corruption, and HIV infection rates, as well as improved GDP, immunization rates, and peace and stability. Looking at all of this data, it seemed clear that educating girls is an incredibly efficient intervention that touches many aspects of poverty alleviation and development. It is a powerful and clear message with even more powerful benefits.

Why advocate concentrating on girls as opposed to all children?

We believe all children deserve an education of quality. That being said, we focus on girls because they are more often left behind, particularly in the developing world.  As the Girl Rising film shows, girls face unique barriers to obtaining an education – barriers that have everything to do with their gender. Sexual violence, early pregnancy, forced labor, safety and security, and child marriage are hurdles that disproportionately keep young girls from classrooms. They are particularly vulnerable after they have reached puberty. Broadly speaking, we’re interested in achieving equality between genders; within that context, girls have special needs and further to go.  

Girl Rising emphasizes its partnerships, which include the private sector. Do you think the trend among companies today is to endorse a broader definition of CSR that encompasses issues like education for girls?

We do see a trend toward broadening the definition of CSR, and we are very enthusiastic about that trend.  We believe that global corporations can play an important and powerful role in accelerating positive social change. We also believe that what is good for society can also be good for business. The success and sustainability of CSR investments is achieved when companies can see that supporting a social value also supports their business. Our strategic partner, Intel, for example, sees that investing in girls education and increasing access for women and girls to technology, will ultimately lead to new markets for Intel innovations. Women represent the largest growth economy in the world today; we hope that smart businesses will see that investing in educating girls is a good long-term bet.

How would you advocate CSR to Canadian companies - especially in the extractives sector – operating in the developing world?

If a company is going to be extracting resources from a community, there is a strong moral argument that the company should also be investing in the long-term health of that community, and that includes girls. There is also a business argument. By investing in the minds and lives of the local population, they are ensuring a pipeline of employees, improved local support, and better community infrastructure to support their future business.

What are other policies countries have implemented that are helping girls in the developing world that Canada could learn from?

Currently, only a tiny percent of global development funding is focused toward initiatives that support adolescent girls. We are hopeful that donor nations will begin to see investments in girls education as a priority intervention. In the past few years, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development has launched several girl-focused initiatives, including the Girls Education Challenge, which is designed to help  millions of the world's poorest girls get to school. The United States government and its primary development agency, USAID,  are also looking for ways to reach millions of girls, particularly in post-conflict settings. By allocating funding specifically toward girls' education, Canada can support the kind of systemic change that will benefit communities for generations.

Girl Rising is more than just a call to action – the film has been critically acclaimed. Was creating a powerful but also artistic film always a goal for the project?

Absolutely! I’m so glad that you asked this question. The biggest challenge in creating Girl Rising was creating a film that would have broad-based appeal. We wanted to create a film that would reach beyond policy experts and global development advocates. We dreamed of a film that could move and inspire general audiences to care about an issue they may never have considered. Girl Rising’s director, Richard Robbins, brought a huge amount of creativity and vision to transforming data and research into moving, inspiring human stories. Richard wanted to make a film that captured the spirit of the girls that we met around the world – courage, determination, fearlessness – and that would be a piece of media that people wanted to watch, not one that they felt like they had to watch. Girl Rising is a beautiful cinematic experience, and that is an important and intentional creative choice.

What inspired the vision of anchoring the campaign with a film? Do you think this kind of creative approach is becoming more widespread?

Originally we just had the idea for the film, but once we started thinking about the kind of impact we wanted the film to make, we developed the strategy of building a campaign with the film as the central tool. We knew that if we wanted to change minds, lives, and ultimately policy, we had to have a community-based infrastructure around the film to facilitate the kind of conversations that could drive change. In addition to broad-based awareness, we wanted to deliver funding that could support direct programming that changed girls’ lives. That led us to our nonprofit partners, who provide support to girls around the world on a daily basis. They know the communities; they are experts in solving these problems from the ground up, and we knew that the best way to involve them was to connect them to the film through a campaign structure. We also wanted to deliver systematic change, and influence leaders to change policy by engaging them in the same way. The campaign was deliberately designed to ensure that the film has a long-term impact and actually makes a difference.

Overall I think that vision of connecting a campaign with a film is becoming more widespread. This project in particular has been well timed to sync up with the changing ways that people are communicating about issues, leaders, and global policies. Like so many campaigns and projects, one of the strategies of Girl Rising was to find a massive community of supporters across social media, because it enabled us to communicate across time zones and to transcend borders. It is amazing to think that so much of what has made our campaign successful would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Where does Girl Rising go from here?

In the next three years, we will be bringing Girl Rising to communities where investments in girls' education are needed most. Specifically, we are looking at targeted distribution efforts across India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Our efforts will include localizing the film with regionally recognized actresses, creating community engagement tools, and convening policy stakeholders to ensure that awareness leads to lasting social and policy change.