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The Forest School Transforming Lives in Paraguay

After spending five years with the students of a revolutionary girls’ boarding school in Paraguay, documentary filmmaker Samantha Grant says this model for education can change lives as it protects the forest.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Girls from the school walk through the forest. Part of their education focuses on the importance of preservation and reforestation. Samantha Grant

When Samantha Grant – director and producer of award-winning films such as “A Fragile Trust” – first signed up to be a cinematographer on a film about a girls’ school in rural Paraguay, she thought it would be a fun, short project. But as soon as she visited the school deep in the country’s Mbaracayu Reserve, she connected with the students and committed the next five years of her life to the film.

The Centro Educativo Mbaracayu school is set in a region with rampant poverty and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world – more than 70 percent of the girls are pregnant by age 16. Agribusiness has led to the destruction of more than 95 percent of the region’s once verdant forests.

Grant’s powerful and poignant new film, “Daughters of the Forest,” which premieres in the U.S. on July 10 on PBS, follows the girls before, during and after their time at the school, where they learn everything from writing business plans to turning seeds into saplings to preventing unwanted pregnancies. Grant spoke with Women & Girls Hub about the school, which has the power to pull girls out of poverty and save Paraguay’s threatened forests.

Women & Girls Hub: What first drew you to the story of the Centro Educativo Mbaracayu school and its students?

Samantha Grant: I was initially brought onto this project as a cinematographer. The producer who had initially raised all the production funding was looking for someone who was both female and fluent in Spanish, and who was on the younger side so that she could relate to the girls. I signed up for the project thinking it would be a fun, quick, low-commitment adventure. As soon as I got on the ground and met the girls in person, I realized that my involvement would be much deeper than simply working as the cinematographer. We connected right away, and over the course of the next five years my role grew and grew until eventually I was directing the project.

Women & Girls Hub: Why did you feel it was crucial to follow the girls over five years?

Grant: The school [cycle] runs for three years. We wanted to meet the girls before they went to the school to establish a baseline, and then see what happened to them for at least one year after they finished school to see what impact, if any, going to the school had on their lives.

Women & Girls Hub: Why is the rate of teen pregnancy so high in the Mbaracayu Reserve? What happens after these girls become mothers at a young age?

Grant: There’s very little education about how reproduction works and very little access to any methods of birth control. Once the girls become mothers, it becomes very difficult for them to continue with their schooling, and that is the beginning of a vicious cycle of poverty. They don’t get an education, they become pregnant again, and before you know it, they have five, six, seven children that they are responsible for raising.

In addition, the men often leave the young women to go to the city and get a job. Unfortunately, many never return, leaving the girls and their babies on their own. One of the ways these young girls try to support themselves is by selling their land to large agribusinesses. This provides them with a large cash infusion, but then they have no land left with which to sustainably grow food to feed their families. This creates a desperate situation where the girls will do whatever they need to do to feed their children – including cutting down protected trees in the forest and hunting protected animals in the forest.

The idea of a school just for girls is revolutionary in a region where more than 70 percent of girls are pregnant by the time they are 16 years old. (Samantha Grant)
The idea of a school just for girls is revolutionary in a region where more than 70 percent of girls are pregnant by the time they are 16 years old. (Samantha Grant)

Women & Girls Hub: What makes the school so revolutionary?

Grant: The school is revolutionary simply by the fact that it is a school dedicated to educating girls. The idea that educating girls is worthwhile is in and of itself radical in this part of the world.

Beyond that, this is a boarding school located in the middle of a remote forest. In this culture, girls do not leave their parental home until they get married, so the idea that they would leave home to go live in the middle of the forest with a bunch of other girls while getting an education is also extremely radical.

The kind of education the girls are getting, a technical education in environmental science, is also extremely unusual. Most of the technical schools are limited to boys, but this school is teaching these skills to girls, and in fact the school recently graduated the country’s first ever female forest ranger.

After leaving the school, Numilla Gomez became an advocate for girls’ education. She got a job as a teacher and was honored by the U.S. embassy as a “Young Woman Making Change.” (Samantha Grant)
After leaving the school, Numilla Gomez became an advocate for girls’ education. She got a job as a teacher and was honored by the U.S. embassy as a “Young Woman Making Change.” (Samantha Grant)

Women & Girls Hub: Can you tell me the personal story of one of the girls in the film?

Grant: When I first met Numilla Gomez, she was a quiet and somewhat surly teenager. I met her when I traveled with Celsa Acosta, the first director of the school, to visit Numilla’s home and convince her parents to permit Numilla to attend the school.

We sat with Numilla’s parents and chatted about the school while Numilla sat nearby, watching skeptically from her perch on her sister’s motorcycle. Her sister was 16, just a few years older than Numilla, and she had just had her first baby.

At that moment it seemed very clear that if she stayed at home, Numilla would soon have a baby of her own. Celsa talked to Numilla’s parents and after about an hour of chit-chat, the parents – and Numilla – agreed to try out the school.

On the first day, Numilla clearly did not want to be there. She kept calling her father and asking him to come get her. He refused, saying, “This may be your only chance to get an education. Give it a few days. It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll adjust.”

Numilla not only adjusted, but she blossomed, becoming a leader at the school who eventually returned to her own village to recruit other indigenous girls to join the school. Numilla did go on to have her own child, but not until after she’d secured a job in her village as a teacher.

This year, Numilla was selected by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay to be honored as a “Young Woman Making Change” for her efforts at not only educating all the children in her village, but also for speaking out about the importance of educating women and girls.

Bianca Caroline Soares, one of the students at the Centro Educativo Mbaracayu school, dreams of becoming the president of Paraguay one day. (Samantha Grant)
Bianca Caroline Soares, one of the students at the Centro Educativo Mbaracayu school, dreams of becoming the president of Paraguay one day. (Samantha Grant)

Women & Girls Hub: Did you see the same changes in the other girls as you followed them over five years?

Grant: Over the course of the time that we filmed with them, the girls were transformed before our very eyes from young girls into women. Not only did they physically change, but mentally and emotionally they became more confident, more outgoing and more willing to believe in and stand up for themselves. As one of the characters in the film says, this is the first time that anyone has ever asked these girls, “Who do you want to be?”

Now that they have gained the confidence to not only think about what they might want to do, but actually effect change to make their goals a reality, their families and communities are starting to see the girls as leaders. Change is slow, but it is happening.

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