“I am my own master now. I have no mistress. I was the last bonded worker in my family. After me, everyone will be free….I’ve seen where change comes from. When it comes, it’s like a song you can’t hold back. You’re singing, and others pick up the tune and start singing too.”

Suma, a young girl in rural Nepal, was sold into bonded labor at the age of six, as several generations of her family had been before her. She and other girls who were laborers in the community used song to get them through these harsh times and to compel household masters to free their slaves. Fortunately, after intense efforts by a local teacher and social worker, Suma was released when she was 12 and was able to return home to her family and to go to school for the first time.


Suma’s story is one of nine vignettes that make up the film Girl Rising, which gives moving accounts of the challenges girls around the world face in getting an education and their potential to overcome. Holly Gordon, the co-founder and CEO of Girl Rising, spoke about the film and the campaign surrounding it at a Leadership Council Luncheon, in conversation with IWHC President Françoise Girard, on April 21, 2015.

Holly’s motivation to make the film came not only from her mother, who told her that “With an education, you have an income, and with an income you have choices, and you have actual freedom.” She and fellow journalist and co-founder Tom Yellin were on a project eight years ago researching the best intervention to break cycles of poverty. They found that girls’ education, and adolescent girls’ education in particular, kept coming up. “If you can get a girl safely through adolescence, and train her so she learns something, she becomes an active participant in society and almost every indicator for poverty gets better.”

They set out to tell what they thought of as the story of a lifetime. The film was released in 2013 and has in many ways spurred a movement. It has been translated into 48 languages and shown around the world. There have been more than 17,000 community-organized screenings, and this is where Gordon sees real transformation happening. “Girl Rising is a model for creating social movements. All change is local.” In Pakistan, for example, the film is currently being used to organize young women as part of leadership training.

The filmmakers’ approach is “spark, reflect, act”—watching Girl Rising is the “spark” that causes audiences to “reflect” on what’s happening in their communities and around the world, and this reflection moves them to “act” in ways that can make a difference. The filmmakers chose to focus on the positive, highlighting stories of girls triumphing over extremely difficult circumstances. “I find in social change, if you start by painting a picture of what’s right, you get there much faster.”

Gordon and Girard spoke about the shared goals between IWHC and Girl Rising: empowering girls, and specifically, increasing their access to secondary education, which makes it much less likely that they will marry and bear children too early. Girard also talked about how young women need accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health, as well as support and skills to feel comfortable and confident about their bodies and their sexuality. IWHC supports organizations in countries as diverse as Peru and Pakistan to develop comprehensive sexuality education programs that not only give girls vital health information, but teach girls and boys about gender equality and creating healthy, supportive relationships.

“I can’t help but see Suma as one of the young leaders that IWHC supports every day,” said Gordon.