Around the world, girls of all ages face an array of barriers including early and forced marriages, domestic slavery, sex trafficking, gender violence and discrimination, he said during an interview with The Park Record.
To highlight those injustices, he created his new documentary "Girl Rising," which will have a special screening in Park City at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, March 20.
The film follows nine young women from Cambodia, India, Egypt, Peru, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti and Sierra Leone in their efforts to get an education. The film addresses the challenge of breaking their longstanding cultural traditions, which, in some cases, were set up to prevent women from going to school.
Robbins said the idea for "Girl Rising" emerged in 2006 while he was researching a different project about ending global poverty.
"That was a subject that I didn't have much background in, so I just dove into the research and began educating myself about poverty and development issues," Robbins said during a phone call from Los Angeles, Calif. "I was really stunned by the power of the empirical evidence surrounding girls' education."
Robbins decided to see what else he could dig up.
"I got hooked," he said. "Sometimes an idea will come across your plate that you can't seem to let go of, and the more I learned, the more engaging it seemed.
Robbins was also intrigued by the fact that the public's knowledge about the power of educating girls was even less widely understood then than it is now.
"It really did seem like I discovered some secret truth," he said.
The filmmaker put his first project on the back burner and decided to make "Girl Rising." And while he didn't have any idea of what countries to focus on, he did know that he wanted to do something international, because education is a global issue.
"We certainly knew there were places we wanted to explore," he said. "We wanted to offer a range of different environments — urban, rural, hot, cold, north and south."
He also wanted to focus on countries where the situation is extremely dire — places like Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, as well as other places where things look quite promising, but contain specific pockets of populations that have been left behind, like Peru.
"The process of choosing the country and choosing the girls was wildly unscientific," Robbins said. "I came up with a plan to pair each of the girls with a writer, because early on, it became obvious that the girls weren't capable of telling their own story," he said. "They lacked not only the language skills, but also the cultural standing to feel entitled to value their own life stories."
Using the writers as a bridge that not only could tell the girls' stories, but also help with the language barrier, Robbins and his crew went to work.
"We partnered with our nonprofits in each country that work with these girls on an everyday basis, and began meeting and interviewing them," Robbins said.
Robbins left the final choice up to the writers.
"I felt it was easier for the writers to make that choice, and I felt they would bring a level of cultural sensitivity and insight that I lacked," he said. "I wanted them to write about someone whom they felt connected to, rather than assigning them some random girl to write about."
The girls surprised Robbins.
"I expected to find girls who lived with that level of deprivation and poverty to be somehow broken or damaged," he said. "But the girls were neither, and, above all, they don't feel sorry for themselves and they didn't want anyone else to feel sorry for them either."
Robbins was also impressed by the girls' strength and determination.
"We throw around this word 'revolution' quite a bit, and it was the tagline for the film, but the reason that word kept coming back to us was because the ambition of these girls goes beyond just improving their own lives," he said. "They all have a vision of the world where every girl is educated, and they are determined to not only improve their own lives, but the lives of their families, their communities and their countries.
"We heard girls in extremely remote places who have never been to a major city talk about going to school," Robbins said. "When you come across that kind of vision, it makes you feel like there is movement here."
Unfortunately, that mindset is different than many girls who live in the United States, where education, although sometimes lacking in support, is available, he said.
"When we asked these girls from the other countries what they wanted to do in their lives, they all said they were looking for careers in which they could help other people," Robbins said. "They wanted to be doctors, teachers and nurses. And I didn't hear anyone wanting to be a pop star or a NBA pro."
In addition to the film's subjects, Robbins wanted to feature some recognizable faces.
He recruited actor Liam Neeson, actresses Anne Hathaway and Selena Gomez and musician Alicia Keys, to name a few.
"We knew who the voices were who have been vocal around this issue," Robbins explained. "Liam Neeson has worked for many years with UNICEF. Anne Hathaway has worked with the Nike Foundation and Alicia Keys has her own foundation. It was a matter of bringing them to the table and finding time in their busy schedules."
Making "Girl Rising" changed Robbins' perspective about what kind of change is possible in the world when it comes to education.
"This is not a subject where we can sit back and hope that someone who is smarter than us figures out how to fix it," he said. "We're not talking about solving the AIDs epidemic, ending global warming or ending religious strife. We know what the answer is here. We know what the solution is."
The challenge, Robbins said, is implementation.
"We can do it and individuals everywhere can help us do it," he said. "In the Internet age, we can follow our own money and not just write a check and send it off into the abyss, hoping it will help somebody."
That's the purpose of the 10x10 campaign, a global effort, which was established as a partner to the film with the mission to educate and empower girls.
"When we spoke to our colleagues in the documentary-film world who had made socially conscious films, they all acknowledged that they had undercooked the campaign side of things," Robbins said. "They made the films and crossed their fingers and held their breath, hoping something worked out."
While in some cases, people did take action, there was more that could have happened with more planning, he said.
That's when we came up with the idea of the 10 x10 campaign, which originally was going to reflect the idea of featuring 10 girls in the film, Robbins said.
"We felt it should work alongside the film from the very beginning," he said. "We couldn't just leave people inspired and hope they would figure something out. We needed to move people in a specific direction."
Even the way "Girl Rising" was introduced to the public was an innovative effort.
"We wanted to have a presence at this year's Sundance Film Festival but the film wasn't ready to screen," Robbins said. "But we brought a one-chapter rough cut and held some private screenings."
That got the word-of-mouth ball rolling.
"Park City has built a reputation for being a home for innovative film, and we know there are many influential people who make their homes or second homes in that community," Robbins said. "It's such a receptive community, separate from the people who come to the festival, and are welcoming to new ideas and new voices. So, it seemed like a natural place to do it."
Now, the general public can organize their own screenings by visiting the website www.girlrising.com , Robbins said.
"We've sold 50,000 tickets just by the positive word of mouth and giving people the opportunity to take action themselves to bring the film into their own communities," he said. "So, fingers crossed we can continue building momentum."
Robbins said the change that comes with education happens quickly.
"One girl who gets an education will change the trajectory of her own kin, because she will educate her own family," he said. "And that family will never go back to being uneducated."
The Eccles Center for the Performing Arts will present a special screening of Richard Robbins' documentary "Girl Rising" on Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. A question-and-answer session with Robbins will follow. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for students ages 12 and 18. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the 10 x 10 campaign that promotes educating girls through its NGO partners. Tickets can be purchased by calling (435) 655-3114 or at the Eccles Center box office.