Michelle Obama shows how a girl’s education can change the world

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In the film “We Will Rise,” the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, along with actresses Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, and CNN anchor Isha Sesay, give voices to some of the young women around the world who are battling the odds to get an education. Screencap from CNN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are currently 62 million young women around the globe who are missing the opportunity to have a proper education. This means that these young women are hampered in their ability to get a lead in life: to secure jobs, make informed decisions about their health, and help their family, among other things.

An education is one of the most important things a young girl can have to help her family and be an active member of society. A study shows that an education can help kids survive as a child born to a mother who can read is twice as likely to live past the age of five. A UNICEF study also shows that child marriage can be reduced by 64 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if young girls received secondary education.

These are some of the realities tackled in the CNN Films production “We Will Rise,” which follows the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, as well as actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, and CNN correspondent Isha Sesay, as they journey to Morocco and Liberia and tell stories of young girls who struggle to receive an education.

we will rise "These girls have big plans for their lives,” the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama tells CNN about her experience in filming "We Will Rise." “They want to attend college and become doctors, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs; and day after day, they do whatever it takes to get the education they need to fulfill their dreams." Screencap from CNN  

The issue has become more than just an outreach program for the First Lady, but a deeply personal advocacy.  In an article exclusive to CNN, she recalled her journey during the making of “We Will Rise”: “We sat down with girls in both countries to discuss the barriers they face and the dreams they hold for their futures. Like so many girls around the world, many of these girls come from families struggling with poverty. Some endure dangerous commutes to and from school each day. Others face cultural pressures to drop out, marry young and start having children of their own.”

“But these girls have big plans for their lives,” she continued. “They want to attend college and become doctors, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs; and day after day, they do whatever it takes to get the education they need to fulfill their dreams. They get up before dawn, and spend hours harvesting crops, cooking for their families and tending to their younger siblings before heading to class. After school, they work as maids and in factories, and they study for hours late into the night.

Along with the First Lady, Streep, Pinto, and Sesay gave voices to these young women and discovered the circumstances that have kept them from going to school — and what they do to overcome those barriers. Pinto and Streep have both been involved in fighting for women's rights, particularly Streep who also previously appeared in the CNN Films presentation, "Girl Rising."

The project is also close to Sesay's heart, a British journalist of Sierra Leonean descent. The CNN anchor has covered some of the most important global news events of late such as the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 2011 protests in Egypt, and the fall of Tripoli.

isha sesay Seasoned CNN anchor Isha Sesay joined the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto in the CNN Films production "We Will Rise" which chronicles the lives of young girls around the world struggling to get an education. Photo from CNN  

CNN Philippines Life recently had the privilege of interviewing Sesay — who at the time of the interview, was in Nigeria reporting on the schoolgirls kidnapped by the group Boko Haram — as she talked about how the film started its journey, her experience working with the First Lady of the United States, and how encouragement can mean a long way for girls who are in need of opportunities. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Can you tell us how the whole project of "We Will Rise" started and how the idea came about to involve all of these powerful women and their voices?

Well, first of all the First Lady Michelle Obama and her husband are the founders of Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government and USAID development agency. It’s an initiative to get girls into school. So they already had that, that was pre-existing. It has been long dedicated to the issue. 

This idea of following the First Lady as she did the work of Let Girls Learn, that came about organically. I was in my office one evening and I got a call from a CNN executive who basically [asked if I would] like to go to Africa with the First Lady, and it came as a complete shock, a complete surprise. I very quickly said, "Yes, I'd love to do that." As someone who is committed to issues of women and girls, it really was a dream come true being able to go to Africa and tell these important stories.

 

How was the collaboration between the filmmakers and Mrs. Obama?

Well, the specific locations were already predetermined by the White House. So, CNN and the White House made an agreement that we were going to collaborate on the show in the sense that we were going to follow her, but then it was left to CNN and the documentary crew and productions partners to actually build out the film.

What are some of the goals that you guys set before the documentary was filmed?

Our intention was to capture honestly and authentically the life [of these girls]. We wanted to make sure that the viewers heard and understood the girl and what she was saying, and appreciate her story and what she's going through. We didn't want to filter it, we didn't want to repackage it in any way. We want the viewers to come away with the sense that you got an intimate inside view of all the challenges these girls are facing.

I understand that you have been around many powerful women growing up, but how was it like being with the First Lady herself? Were there some things that you discovered and surprised you about how she is and how she dealt with these issues that were personal to her?

I've been around the First Lady before. I've met her before, but the thing that shocked me in the more time I've spent with her is just how warm she is. She's such a warm person. What really really struck me was how willing she is with sharing her story and her life lessons. That really kind of got me seeing how willing she was to speak on her own moments of insecurity, her own challenges that she had to overcome. She did that without any reservations and without being self-conscious in any way. She understands the power of sharing her story with girls in different environments. That really struck me and stood out to me. She was very very friendly with the girls even if she was in the position to possibly be very different.

we will rise Isha Sesay, Meryl Streep, and some of the girls featured in the film during the White House premiere of "We Will Rise." Photo from CNN  

What kind of perspective did Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto, who are both actresses, bring to the documentary?

Well, I mean if you look at Meryl or Freida, [they] aren't simply actresses. I mean, both of them have been dedicated to the issue for a very long time. They weren't coming into this as novices. Freida does a lot of work with issues regarding girls and has non-profit affiliations as does Meryl. Meryl was part of “Girl Rising,” a film that was done a couple of years ago that has been on CNN, and was actually made by the same people who collaborated with CNN to make this one. Both of them came to this project with a lot of knowledge and a lot of understanding and a lot of empathy for what women in developing nations have to go through and all the challenges they have to overcome.

I can't speak for them, but I would imagine that they weren't necessarily surprised, because they've tackled these issues and stories before. But I think they brought an amount of passion and dedication to the project. They really came with the desire to let the girls tell the story in an authentic way. They were just wonderful to work with.

What do you hope the audience will take from watching "We Will Rise"?

I hope that people will understand that girls all over the world are the same. They all have hopes, they all have dreams. What is not an equal measure is the opportunity. I hope that the viewers see that if you invest in a girl, and I don't just mean financially, but if you take the time to pour words of faith and encouragement into the girls’ lives, it'll make a huge difference. I hope people will look at the girls around them and they will look to inspire them, encourage them, mentor them, and lift them up.

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Visit the official website of “We Will Rise” to know more about the film.