In many respects, it means what your culture says it means.
In tribute to International Women’s Day on March 8, ABC has aired the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary ‘I AM A GIRL’ which follows the lives of several teenage girls on the brink of womanhood in countries around the world.
I AM A GIRL is remarkable because it shows the extent to which culture dictates our worldview.
In the film, Aziza from Afghanistan suffers stress and anxiety because she must study in secret to avoid being shot while Katie from Australia suffers stress and depression from the pressures of succeeding in her competitive, well-rounded education.
The six girls come from a spectrum of backgrounds, from the middle-class suburbs of Sydney, to the ‘Projects’ of New York, the slums of Cambodia as well as villages in Papua New Guinea, Cameroon and Afghanistan.
Whilst the film centres on the stories of girls and the realities of being a woman, what penetrates most clearly are the realities of being a person in different parts of the world, regardless of gender.
The young girl from Australia, Katie, is in her final year of high school in Sydney and facing all the pressures of a teenager in the bubble that is middle class urban Australia; completing school, getting into university and fitting in with peers and boyfriends. She suffers depression and talks about the difficulty of battling with this, her attempt on her life and her subsequent climb out of this hole.
The stark contrast is 16-year-old Kimsey’s story from Cambodia. Obligated to sell her virginity at 12 years of age and since working as a slave in Phnom Penh’s notorious sex industry, Kimsey is the sole supporter of her sick mother and young toddler. She was forced to give up her second child at 16 years, two days after giving birth alone on a dirt floor.
Kimsey leads a life of continual violence and desperation as she struggles to support her diabetes plagued mother, her two-year-old daughter and escape the torment of her male partner, who is seen countless times even on film being verbally abusive.
As I sat through these stories, the disparity in the girl’s experiences couldn’t be starker.
The first had everything to live for and wanted to take her life away.
The second had almost nothing to live for and wanted to survive no matter what.
It seemed a rather cruel irony.
I found myself asking if there is something in affluence that makes us forget the beauty, fragility and incredible gift of life?
Katie’s story shows incredible vulnerability and strength in her own right but it also highlights that comfort, health, a loving family and good education do not constitute happiness.
It became a rather uncomfortable comparison to be hearing about Katie’s problems one moment then in the next moment hearing Kimsey talk about being gang raped in a forest or Aziza from Afghanistan talk about the time her father was taken away by the Taliban and shot.
The intention of the filmmakers is to highlight the reality of being a girl or woman in today’s world who, collectively, are far more prone to experiencing violence, persecution, poverty or disease than the average male born into any one society.
What I took away from the film was the hard truth of our collective cultural amnesia; one that assumes wealth, comfort and access to education necessitates happiness.
Currently in Australia, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men will experience depression at some stage in their lives. This is despite Australia having one of the highest standards of living and most generous political freedoms in the world.
Undoubtedly one of the most touching films I’ve seen in some time, I AM A GIRL is a reminder to be grateful for every moment of life that holds opportunity and freedom, for perhaps it is only when these are gone that their value is appreciated.
This is a film of humanity, suitable for men and women alike. More information is available at www.iamagirl.com.au