Girls Aren’t the Leaders of Tomorrow: We’re Leaders of Today
When I was 13, I lived in India for a year after being born and brought up in New Jersey. While there, I single-handedly organized a fundraiser to raise money for Karunashraya, a cancer hospice, and to get hair donations for Locks of Love. The fundraiser was to be held at a large shopping mall in Bangalore, and I spent months preparing. I contacted salons at the mall to see if they could spare hairdressers for the hair cutting, organized live music, managed all publicity, arranged for cancer survivors to speak at the event, and solely handled all other logistical needs. I discussed the event with a manager of the mall first, of course, to ensure we had a definitive venue before proceeding. I went ahead with my months of planning and prepping after getting the thumbs-up from him.
Two weeks before the event, I went to his office to have a final meeting regarding setup. When I arrived, he told me that the event could not take place.
He said that because I was just a young girl, he had not actually expected me to carry my plan through. As a result of his uncertainty, he said, he had decided to wait to get official approval from his higher-ups — despite telling me I already had the approval — since he had not thought I would get that far. Because he had asked his boss so last minute after realizing I had actually followed through, my event was rejected.
All preparations had to be canceled, all the months and months of planning and hard work gone to waste. The worst part for me, however, was calling the Karunashraya hospice and the speakers to tell them that the event was off. All this, solely because some man had arbitrarily underestimated me because I was “just a young girl.”
I have news for you: I am not JUST a girl. I am a girl, and I am proud.
This instance is unfortunately only one of many examples of being written off because of my age and gender, and most young women can likely cite similar experiences. This unacceptable pattern is the exact reason why it is so important for young people — and especially girls — to speak up and refuse to be turned down. It is vital that we be taken seriously in our efforts in any sector, but this becomes even more critical as we consider girls’ voices in gender issues.
When considering the global movement for gender equality, it is blatantly unacceptable to let men make the decisions or identify the issues, yet it is also inadequate for only women to be involved as decision makers and not girls. Girls face unique issues, and to be lumped with “women” or with “children” is simply inefficient and ineffective. Girls face oppression on multiple levels, from our age to our gender and often to our race, religion, ability, sexuality, socio-economic class, and other discriminating factors. We are therefore the only ones who can accurately identify which issues affect us most and which means of implementation will truly reach us. Every time there is an attempt to silence us, it becomes that much more important for our voices to be louder than ever, because we bring a unique perspective that is absolutely critical to every conversation.
Unlike thousands and thousands of girls around the world, I have had the immense privilege of being able to speak up and have my voice be heard. For the past two years, I have served as a girl advocate for the U.N. Working Group on Girls, through AAUW, and have had the opportunity to speak at and run a number of events at the United Nations. My first interaction with the Working Group on Girls was during the 2014 International Day of the Girl as a performer for the Girls Speak Out at U.N. headquarters. The entire experience was so galvanizing — it was hard to envision what the result would look like during the weeks of preparation beforehand, but the actual event was empowering beyond imagination. We were performing real, first-hand stories submitted by girls around the world, including one I wrote, and bringing those raw words to life. It was so rewarding.
One particular moment of the event that has always stuck with me occurred right after our performance of a particularly emotional piece about rape. After we had finished, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta put aside the speech she had prepared and instead said through tears that our performances made her both heartbroken — because she would have told those same stories when she was 16 — and hopeful — because those stories never got told back then.
I will never forget the look in her eyes or how I felt in that pin-drop silent moment of impact. That’s the moment I found my purpose and recognized the potential my voice, our voices, have to make a change.
Most recently, at the 60th U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, we girl advocates sat down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and many other high-level U.N. policy makers regarding our language suggestions for the CSW Agreed Conclusions for the session. Having the prime minister there lent us immense legitimacy: It reenergized us because it can be so easy to question the extent to which our voices are actually being heard. Yet here was Trudeau himself, genuinely considering our suggestions. His presence was also important because it gave us increased legitimacy in the eyes of the other U.N. officials participating in the discussions; they were more engaged and receptive than ever before.
Certain ideas from our proposals were, in fact, ultimately used in the Agreed Conclusions, and that just goes to show that giving girls a seat at the table is not just for us. It is for everyone. Our inclusion truly benefits the result, because we have an unmatched perspective and invaluable ideas.
So please, not just for us but for you, make an active effort to listen to girls at every level and let us advocate for ourselves instead of merely speaking over us. I am so thankful to AAUW for adopting me as their girl advocate for the Working Group on Girls. This kind of organizational support for girls needs to continue if we are to ever achieve true gender equality. We girls have immense potential, and we refuse to be considered leaders of tomorrow. We are leaders of today and demand to be treated as such.
This post was written by AAUW’s U.N. Girl Advocate Aasha.
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