From the Iraq War to corruption in America’s political system, Christina Lowery has covered some of the world’s most pressing stories during her time working as a documentary filmmaker. But it was in 2008, when she was part of a team asked to create a film on the subject of ending global poverty, that Lowery came across a topic that captured her mind and heart and would define the next decade of her life.
“How on earth do you capture something so big, in a way that gets people to care about it? We thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really big topic,’ and like you do in documentary projects, we decided to start with what the leading practitioners, academics and policymakers were saying about it.”
Extensive research across sectors such as HIV-AIDS, clean water, agriculture, health and education” led Lowery’s team to the same response repeatedly: “Every person – no matter what sector they were speaking from – said the same thing,” she says. “That we’ve got to get more girls in school and keep them there.”
“Every person – no matter what sector they were speaking from – said the same thing,” she says. “That we’ve got to get more girls in school and keep them there.”
Lowery and her team released the original Girl Rising film in 2013, which follows the stories of nine girls from across the globe, each striving to overcome their circumstances. This film inspired the start of the nonprofit Girl Rising, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to shining a spotlight on girls’ education and championing youth empowerment. Using the power of storytelling told through film and other media, Girl Rising, led by Lowery as CEO, ultimately aims to change the way the world values girls and their education.
GIVING GIRLS VISIBILITY
In 2022, Girl Rising estimated its reach at 7 million adolescents, working with 40 partners in 8 countries. But it all began with one documentary film of the same name.
UNICEF estimates that 129 million girls across the world are not in school. That figure seemed to be improving, but new analysis warns that a lot of progress has been lost during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 11 million girls unlikely to return to school at all.
From a global economic perspective, “there is a mountain of evidence that already exists demonstrating the positive benefits of educating girls,” says Lowery, “and yet so little money in the big world of development goes towards it”.
Lowery found that adolescent girls in particular are often “invisible” in many low-income communities. Meanwhile, many existing initiatives focus on primary school-aged children, or women’s empowerment, without much in-between. “And yet adolescence is this perilous time for girls,” she notes. “It's the time their worlds shrink as they come under greater risk of sexual violence when even walking to school becomes a more dangerous proposition.”
EMPOWERMENT THROUGH STORYTELLING
In their storytelling approach Girl Rising does not depict girls in a patronizing way or paint the subjects as victims: “We want to show the world that girls, in fact, do have the power to radically change their lives, their families' lives, their communities' lives – but that they need support to do so.”
“We wanted to show the world that these girls, in fact, do have the power to radically change their lives, their families' lives, their communities’ lives – but that they need support to do so.”
“We want to create programs and media that is interesting and inspiring and more than anything amplifies girls as the powerful agents of change that they are,” she says.
SUPPORTING LOCAL ACTION
Girl Rising takes a three-pronged approach to invoke change in the way girls are seen in society. First, the team creates films, other media content and educational resources to tell girls’ stories in a way that is empowering, not patronizing.
Second, Girl Rising works with organizations on the ground in countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Guatemala, Kenya and more to support local solutions to gaps in quality and access to education. Girl Rising works with curriculum experts from each country to adapt content to create something that is culturally appropriate and fits the local context.
“Primarily our work with them is to support their girls' education efforts, and to provide adapted educational resources and curricula that are story-based,” says Lowery, “We want to help youth build concrete skills, address harmful gender norms, develop their voices and agency. We provide training to use those resources and measure the results and, in some instances, provide longer-term financial support to partners to further develop their innovative girls’ educational programming.” The third pillar of Girl Rising strives to ignite positive change by inspiring others – parents, community leaders, funders and political leaders – to care about and prioritize girls’ education and well-being. “These are big, complicated, and in some places very sensitive issues and we believe fundamentally that stories are a way into those discussions for people,” Lowery adds. “It allows them to access these issues in their hearts, not just in their minds.”
“These are big, complicated, and in some places very sensitive issues and we believe fundamentally that stories are a way into those discussions for people,” Lowery adds. “It allows them to access these issues in their hearts, not just in their minds.”
NURTURING FUTURE TALENT
Through a new fellowship programme, Future Rising, the organization is supporting young people aged 17-25 to get creative in illustrating the links between education and addressing climate change.
Each Fellow proposes a narrative project about their work to expose the intersection between environmental protection and gender justice; Girl Rising helps them accomplish the project over the course of a year alongside training in storytelling and communications. Existing projects are wide-ranging, from a series of graphic novels in Nigeria about the connection between drought and early marriage, to animation, films and photography.
“Whenever I need a dose of inspiration, all I have to do is read about the work that these young people are doing, and it fills me right up,” says Lowery. “They're extraordinary people at every level who are not daunted by what sometimes feels like the enormity of the mountain we are just beginning to climb.”
“They're extraordinary people at every level who are not daunted by what sometimes feels like the enormity of the mountain we are just beginning to climb.”
To fellow change-makers wanting to make a positive difference in the world of girls’ education,
Lowery says:” Don’t be afraid to dream really big. This is such important work that will in fact change the world for the better.”
“One of the most important things we can do right now is to empower those who are most proximate to the challenges,” she concludes.