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International Day Of Girls - We Will Rise - LEAD
Credit: Gina Nemirofsky

If you watch just one program this week, make sure it’s We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World. Produced by CNN Films, it premieres on CNN International today, the fourth annual International Day of the Girl, a day dedicated to promoting gender equality around the globe.

In our October cover story, First Lady Michelle Obama talked about the education initiative Let Girls Learn, which she and President Barack Obama launched last year to help educate and empower girls worldwide. We Will Rise chronicles her visit to Liberia and Morocco to see firsthand how the program is working.

Joined by actresses Freida Pinto and Meryl Streep as well as journalist and girls-education advocate Isha Sesay, Mrs. Obama meets some of the schoolgirls succeeding due in part to the community-based programs funded by Let Girls Learn but also due to the strength, character, and perseverance of the young women themselves. Yet, to fully understand what’s so remarkable about their stories, it’s important to know the obstacles schoolchildren in developing countries are facing.

In many parts of the world, school is not free, and when families are living on the equivalent of just a few dollars a day, parents must choose between eating and sending their kids to school. Add to that the physical challenges of reaching the nearest schools, limited electricity and clean water, and epidemics like the Ebola crisis, and it’s clear that educating children is not always a family’s No. 1 priority.

Pinto, Sesay, Obama, and Streep in Marrakesh
Credit: AMANDA LUCIDON

Girls, however, are confronted with an additional set of obstacles. For five days every month, many are unable to leave their homes because they don’t have access to sanitary pads during their periods. Then there are the cultural challenges: In many countries, a girl’s education is simply not important. Girls are expected to do the majority of day-to-day chores like gathering water and taking care of younger siblings, and many are married off at a young age so families have one less mouth to feed.

According to UNICEF, more than 700 million women worldwide were married before they turned 18. Some 250 million of them were married before age 15—to put that in perspective, that’s roughly equal to three-quarters of the entire U.S. population. And even then, if girls are lucky enough to be able to stay with their families and go to school, they are often exposed to sexual harassment and sexual assault at school, not just from boys but from teachers, some of whom ask for sexual favors in exchange for better grades.

International Day Of Girls - We Will Rise -
Credit: TONY GERBER

These statistics are bleak, but that’s why We Will Rise is a must-watch film. We spoke to CNN’s Isha Sesay, who grew up in neighboring Sierra Leone, about the young women she traveled to meet in Liberia, and asked her why it’s so important to challenge the cultural stereotypes that keep girls from reaching their full potential not only in developing countries but also in the Western world.

“When everyone is empowered and everyone is working, it’s great economically,” she explains, “but it’s also the kind of society we want to live in.”

A role model for girls in her own right, Sesay, who graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, with honors, credits her mom, pro-democracy advocate Kadi Sesay, with instilling in her the confidence to pursue her dreams, and she hopes that everyone will make an effort to affect positive change by empowering girls right here at home.

“Whether you decide to help people in your immediate circle or your community, or you want to go further afield and help people on the other side of the world, you should do something,” says Sesay. “I think we all have a responsibility in whatever way big or small to try and make a difference. Just a small amount of effort can result in such amazing change.”

She continues: “If you can help girls around you to lift them up, then you’ll be doing something that will not just impact those girls but impact everyone.”

So, in honor of the International Day of the Girl, set your DVR for the U.S. premiere Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 9 p.m. ET on CNN to hear these incredible stories and more. Watch an excerpt of the film here:

Check your local listings for encore presentations on HLN and CNN en Español.