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April 11, 2017

A Mission to Educate

Follow Michelle Obama and friends as they work to help women the world over.

Libby Slate
  • CNN
  • CNN
  • CNN
  • CNN
  • CNN

In 2014, the deadly Ebola virus epidemic began its rage through West Africa.

In Kakata, Liberia, a teenager named Raphina Felee, who lived with her aunt and uncle, detected the symptoms in her uncle; she had learned about them in school.

Her uncle demurred. What could Raphina know? She was only a girl, not someone to respect as a boy would be. But Raphina, undeterred, insisted that her uncle be quarantined, and that he seek treatment. She turned out to be right, and her uncle survived.

Raphina’s is a success story, not only because she was able to save her uncle, but because she was still in school in the first place. In her society, as in many others in Africa, education for girls is frowned upon; girls commonly leave school after the age of 12, and even in this day and age, illiteracy rates among girls and women run high.

To explore the problem of girls’ lack of access to education, and encourage more girls to seek schooling, Girl Rising, a global campaign for girls’ education and empowerment, and CNN Films and The Documentary Group joined forces to produce the film We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World, which premiered on CNN networks worldwide last October in celebration of International Day of the Girl 2016.

The 49-minute documentary chronicles the stories of several girls in Liberia and Morocco, via interviews with CNN correspondent Isha Sesay – herself of Sierra Leonean descent – and actress Meryl Streep. Their profiles precede meetings, along with other students, with then-First Lady Michelle Obama that were moderated by actress Freida Pinto, an ambassador for Girl Rising.

“[We] have come here,” says Streep, who speaks with girls in Morocco while Sesay does the same in Liberia before traveling to join the actress, “to accompany the First Lady, to gain insight as to what it will take to help girls rise up and claim their place in this world.”

Raphina, aged 20 in the film, studies late at night, after household chores are done, with a tiny light illuminating the darkness much like the knowledge that will enlighten her life. “I don’t care what the struggle will be,” she asserts. “I can make it.”

Also in Liberia, we meet 16-year-old Janet Jackson, who shares a name with an American star and also likes to sing. She lives with her family in Bensonville, where she has more housework than her brothers, and aspires to be a journalist.

Looking toward the meeting with Mrs. Obama. “I would tell her a lot of things,” Janet says, when Sesay asks what she’d like the First Lady to know. “Especially, what’s affecting girls – sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, early marriage.”

In the town of Marshall, where as in many other Liberian locales access to electricity and running water is limited, Sesay becomes acquainted with Tina Brown, whose favorite subject is science. “I love coming to school, for the work,” she says. “You meet new friends, and have fun, and share ideas, and then you focus on your lesson.”

Tina also loves reading to younger children. Her father, who struggles to support his family, doesn’t always pay her school fees, though he makes sure he pays those of her brother. She doesn’t tell him she thinks he’s being unfair, out of fear. “You have to keep on your parents, every day,” she says, “telling them, ‘I want to go to school. I want to go to school.’”

In Morocco, where the economy is stronger than Liberia, physical challenges to obtaining an education still abound: almost half the population lives in rural or remote areas where access to schools, clean water and sanitation services is limited.

In the village of Douar Laadam, outside Marrakesh,  Streep visits Project Soar, a privately funded enterprise supported by the Peace Corps to help girls stay in school as long as possible. There, two girls lead a gathering of other girls in a spirited pledge: “I am strong! I am capable! I am worthy! I am smart!”

It’s not just the graphic of the flying bird on their bright orange t-shirts that soars, it’s their collective spirit, as well.

Here Streep meets 13-year-old Hanane Amyour, who through a translator notes that girls often miss five days of school per month while they are menstruating. Project Soar provides menstrual pads and teaches the girls how to use them – conservative Moroccan mothers typically shy away from talking to their daughters about menstruation – so that they can continue to report to class every day.

Streep meets Hanane’s relatives at a family dinner at home; her father moved here to have access to schools, working two jobs to provide.

“The [previous] village was trapping us in a cycle of poverty, and if I didn’t give my children a chance, it would never end,” he says. “My older daughters didn’t get to go to school, so I moved here so my younger children could be educated.” Notes his mother, Hanane’s grandmother, “”We [women] didn’t go. We can’t read or write. There were just the mosques. You have to be courageous.”

Another eager student is Fouzya Toukart, who is about to graduate from a university in Morocco with a degree in language studies, and speaks five languages. Because her father disapproved of schooling for girls older than 12, and her ill mother wanted her home to be a caregiver, Fouzya staged a hunger strike in protest.

Her continued education was assured after a teacher intervened. “She said, ‘I promise you, she’s going to achieve her goals, because I can see it in her eyes,’” Fouzya recalls. She graduated middle school first in her class and completed high school in three years, also at the top of her class.

Ill or not, her mother still has dreams for her, which Fouzya thinks about when she gets discouraged. “I want to achieve her dreams,” she says. “She deserves that. I want to show that I can do that, even though I’m female.”

One female definitely in a man’s world is Karima Lakouz, reached via winding roads in the Atlas Mountains. The former high school valedictorian wants to be an engineer. It’s rare for women to be involved in science, rather than the arts and literature. “Then girls started realizing they have brains as well, for science and technology,” Karima explains.

Interwoven with the girls’ profiles are scenes of Michelle Obama, giving a speech, in the White House preparing for the trip, arriving in Africa with her two daughters and her mother, meeting with African dignitaries. “When I tell my story, I don’t start with my degrees from Harvard and Princeton,” she says. “I grew up in a working class [family].”

Indeed the meetings with Mrs. Obama in Liberia and Morocco are impressive not only for the girls’ participation, but because they underscore how much these four famous, powerful, accomplished women share with the girls.

“When I was your age, if anyone had told me I would become First Lady of the United States of America, I would have laughed at them,” Mrs. Obama tells the Liberian gathering. “Growing up, there had never been an African-American President, let alone an African-American First Lady. So my goal as First Lady was to make sure I was the best First Lady I could possibly be. I made sure that every day that I came to my job, I brought a level of passion and confidence and trust.”

She doesn’t always feel confident, she admits. The other women also note some of their insecurities, at the behest of one of the girls, who wants to know how they overcome times of self-doubt; Pinto becomes particularly emotional confessing how inadequate she sometimes feels.

But the spotlight is most definitely on the girls, absorbing the women’s encouragement and advice and telling their stories to those in the room – and, through CNN, to the world: What makes them feel strong, why they want to be in school, what their triumphs and problems are.

Educating girls also helps their families, be it Raphina’s saving her uncle’s life through her knowledge of Ebola or raising their societies’ and their nations’ health as a whole.

“These girls are our changemakers, our future doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs,” Michelle Obama says. “They’re our dreamers and visionaries, who could change the world as we know it. That kind of talent among girls and women exists everywhere in the world, and we lose out on that potential if we don’t invest in it  [This trip] reinforces the fact that we can’t afford to waste that talent. We need to invest in it, and let it flow.”

Let it flow … and let it rise.

For shining a spotlight on the need for educating girls the world over, and presenting some of the best and brightest of those students, We Will Rise is a worthy recipient of a 2017 Academy Honor.

We Will Rise is available for purchase at Amazon Video.

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