Actress Freida Pinto is an ambassador for girls' education
She traveled with first lady Michelle Obama to Morocco and Liberia
While there, they met with girls overcoming extreme challenges
Editor’s Note: Freida Pinto is a girls’ education ambassador, producer and actor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Watch CNN Films’ “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World” on CNNgo.
Many of us are aware that millions of girls around the world are denied access to education.
Yet we rarely get to hear from girls themselves about what it’s like to confront the obstacles that keep more than 62 million girls out of school.
A year ago, I had the honor of speaking about this with first lady Michelle Obama. As an ambassador for the girls’ education campaign Girl Rising, and a producer of the film of the same name, I met with Obama to congratulate her on Let Girls Learn, an initiative she and President Obama launched to help break down the barriers girls face.
In that meeting, she suggested we take a trip to meet girls who’ve carved a new path forward – girls who are the first in their communities to become educated – so that we could better understand how change takes hold, and to share their stories with the world.
That trip has been captured in the film “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World.” The film, premiering on CNN this week, chronicles our journey with fellow activists Meryl Streep and CNN’s Isha Sesay to Morocco and Liberia.
I’ve spent years advocating for girls, in my home country of India and then worldwide with Girl Rising and Plan International. But as I set out on this mission, I stopped to consider the daily reality for girls living in the countries we were going to visit.
I had to imagine life where one-quarter of teen girls and young women cannot read or write, as is the case in Morocco.
Or what it’s like to live where half of women have been affected by female genital mutilation, and where one in 24 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, as in Liberia.
How could a young teen possibly navigate a world such as this, one predisposed to treating her as a second-class citizen?
That was on my mind as the first lady’s plane touched down in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia amid dancers, drummers and a good amount of chaos. I stood next to Isha and peppered her with questions about the girls she’d met during earlier home visits, who would later join us for a roundtable with Obama. The statistics were gnawing a hole in my psyche, but Isha reassured me. “Just wait,” she said. “These girls are amazing. We’re about to see real progress.”
The girls of GLOW – that’s Girls Leading Our World, a leadership camp sponsored by the Peace Corps – did, in fact, embody the change this world so badly needs.
Obama, Isha and I toured GLOW and got to know the girls. Programs such as this one, as well as those we learned about in Morocco, build girls’ self-esteem and provide practical solutions to the everyday problems they face. We met with young women who had stared down death and despair in towns that lacked basic health care – as was the case for so many young caretakers during the Ebola crisis – and were now proudly showing off their public health expertise.
What came later in the trip will stay with me forever. In Morocco, the first lady, Meryl, Isha and I prepared for a more formal discussion with 24 extraordinary girls. With a bank of press standing as witness (they were asked to leave to provide more privacy halfway through), young women, one by one, gave their testimonies to Obama. Humble yet assured, with backs straight and chins up, they shared how they persevered in the face of extreme adversity. One girl endured long and dangerous walks to school only to be raped. Another had gone on a hunger strike when her parents told her she could no longer attend classes.
But where there was sorrow, there was triumph. One Muslim teen studying car mechanics plans to open the first female-owned auto shop. Another is the first girl in her community to study “between the wires” (computer engineering). And for the girl who had gone on a hunger strike, she became the first girl in her village to graduate secondary school and is now attending college, studying linguistics.
This is revolutionary change. It’s also a very real shift in how countries, in this case Morocco together with the United States, are prioritizing precious resources for girls’ education.
I’m tempted to share more but I would rather the world tune in to meet these girls. I hope you will watch this documentary with your family and friends. You might, as I did on this trip, reflect on your own education, and consider how you can get more deeply involved in the global movement for equality.
Freida Pinto is a girls’ education ambassador, producer, and actor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World” is a CNN Films production produced by the same team behind the feature documentary “Girl Rising.”