"Stories can conquer fear," Nigerian novelist Ben Okri once said. "They can make the heart bigger."
There's a world of truth to that statement. As someone who comes from a long line of storytellers, I've always felt that our lives are just long and rich stories, knit together over the years, that tell us not only about ourselves, but the human condition, as well.
Which is why, I believe, the Women in the World Summit, which opened on Thursday night in New York City, is such an important gathering -- because it is dedicated to championing women and girls around the world, and not just through their compelling stories, but through the actions that those stories inspire.
This year, the summit was attended by no shortage of admirable women -- from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice, to Meryl Streep and Somali human rights activist Dr. Hawa Abdi. But my eye was especially trained on the big opening night event, in which actress and activist Angelina Jolie honored 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who has come to symbolize both the plight of young women around the world, and the courage to fight for justice.
Yousafzai was only 11 years old when, under a pseudonym on a BBC blog, she began to write about the life under the brutal Taliban regime in Pakistan's Swat Valley, particularly the violently enforced edict banning girls from obtaining an education. Yousafzai's undercover reporting was hard-hitting and painful; and once her identity became known, her bravery was no less boundless.
"I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school," she told a TV audience. "All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one."
Yet as her popularity grew, so, too, did her vulnerability -- and last October, Taliban gunmen shot her in the head while she was riding on a school bus. She survived the assault and was sent to the United Kingdom for hospitalization, where she continues her rehabilitation today. But the world has taken up her cause. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the U.N. has launched a petition in her name, calling on organizations worldwide to ensure education for all of the world's children by 2015.
Most important, Yousafzai's bold fight lives on in the hearts of her peers.
"Every girl in Swat is Malala," a classmate commented through Twitter two days after the assassination attempt. "We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can't defeat us."
History has been replete with girls and young women whose stories, often of sacrifice, have driven others to reach for greater ideals. Anne Frank still stands as a shining testament to the unbreakable will -- and unchecked optimism -- of the human spirit. And Helen Keller came to exemplify the determination that is required to face down disability.
In my own life, I've personally witnessed how the seeds of goodness planted in children have blossomed into something beautiful and powerful. In 1972, I watched kids embrace, almost by instinct, the deeper lessons of Free to Be...You and Me, which taught them about their bottomless potential and the injustice of racial and gender discrimination. And today, I continue to be awed by the girls and boys of St. Jude Children's Hospital, who remain the definition of inner-courage. These children truly inspire me.
Although most Americans weren't in attendance at the Women in the World Summit, fortunately, we will all be given the opportunity to share in a similarly rousing event. This week, a 100-minute documentary entitled Girl Rising will debut in more than 500 screenings across the country -- and it is an astonishing achievement. Executive produced by Holly Gordon, the film tells the stories of nine heroic girls from around the globe who, like Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, overcame nearly insurmountable adversity to claim their right to an education.
Like Sokha, an orphaned Cambodian who rose from the filth of a garbage dump to become a prize pupil in a top school, where she also teaches younger students. Or Wadley from Haiti, who was just 7 when the 2010 earthquake devastated her home and school, but didn't keep her from seizing an education that has made her a promising science student and budding photographer. Or Nepal's Suma, who, forced into bonded labor at 6, found solace in writing music and learning to read, then forged a battle to win an education for other young girls.
And then there's Azmera of Ethiopia, who defied the traditional demand that she be married at 13, and instead, remained in school where she continues to excel in English and mathematics. Azmera plans to become a teacher.
Girl after girl, each of these stories jolts us into a deeper awareness of the unconscionable injustices that still exist throughout the world, and the triumph of rising above them. I hope you'll take a look at our slide show, which previews these young women's remarkable journeys. And then I hope you'll see the movie.
Meanwhile, to all the girls and women of the Women in the World Summit, we salute you. And to Malala Yousafzai, God's speed for a safe and complete recovery. The world treasures your voice.
Ruksana’s family lives on the streets of Kolkata. Though they are “pavement dwellers,” her father has sacrificed everything to send his daughters to school -- and it’s paying off. Her family is still on the streets, but Ruksana is succeeding in school, and her mother has even become involved in community development.
Suma was forced into bonded labor at 6 years old while her brothers attended school. She finds comfort by writing music, but it wasn’t until she learned to read that she got her first taste of freedom from her harsh reality. She’s now studying in school and helping free other girls who are shackled in indentured servitude.
Married off to her cousin at 11 years old in exchange for a car that was given to her brother, Amina hasn’t lost hope. The child bride is adamant about forgoing society’s expectations for her and helping other girls do the same.
Not even a devastating hurricane could crush Wadley’s spirit. Only 7 years old when the 2010 earthquake in Haiti destroyed her home, Wadley was turned away at the schoolhouse each morning -- and returned each subsequent day until she was allowed to sit in and learn.
Sokha is an orphan, picking through garbage dumps just to survive. But through a series of opportune events, Sokha was able to enroll in school, where she’s now a star student in her class -- she even teaches younger classmates.
Surviving in a mining town in Peru is a struggle for Senna and her family -- but her father has big plans for her and urges Senna to attend school. With the help of a nonprofit working in her area, Senna’s family has moved to a nearby city with better school and housing options. In school, she's discovered the power of poetry and is uncovering more of the world through the internet.
When 13-year-old Azmera was told she needed to get married, she shocked her family by saying no. Thanks to her older brother’s support, instead of marrying, she’s remained in school and hopes to be a teacher so she can “educate girls just like me.”
In war-torn Sierra Leone, Mariama is the first in her family to attend school. She has her own radio show, inspiring thousands of young women in the country, and is on track to attend university. And she’s gone even further -- with the help of one of Sierra Leone’s leading female journalists, Mariama is co-writing a report on gender equality in the country that she will self-publish and share with schools.
Twelve-year-old Yasmin was raped by a stranger driving her home. Instead of becoming a victim, when she went to police after the attack, she told them she’d transformed herself into a superhero -- she’d fought back with a knife she kept hidden in an attempt to fend off her attacker. Now 13 and engaged, her current whereabouts are unknown.
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