This week, the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) commenced in New York City to focus on the linkages between women's empowerment and sustainable development.
But as thousands of women come together to advocate for our rights, we wonder: where are the girls?
Girls' empowerment is one of the most promising strategies we have to achieve sustainable development. Ensuring that girls are healthy, educated, and enabled to speak out for their own rights is key to creating a better world - for girls, their families, communities, and countries.
This is why our organization, Rise Up, brought a delegation of girls from Liberia and the US South to share their powerful advocacy work with esteemed United Nations officials and policymakers at the CSW. But, we will sorely miss Norwu, a 20-year old Liberian girl who we had planned to include in the delegation. Norwu is a passionate advocate for girls' education through her tireless work for the passage of the National Children's Law in Liberia, which guarantees national legal protection for children's health and education. But despite her important contributions to her own country's development, Norwu was denied a visa at the US Embassy in Monrovia.
No one knows if the visa officer even looked at Norwu's application, which included a special invitation and sponsorship from the United Nations Foundation. But one thing is clear: the embassy effectively took away her right to participate as a girl leader and raise her voice for Liberia in the halls of the United Nations. They took away her right to speak.
We invited Norwu to write about her experience and share what she would have done had she been given the chance to attend CSW. Here is what she said:
I was excited to attend the CSW because it would have enabled me to hear stories from other adolescent girls and learn from their experience. This would have also afforded me the opportunity to network with others in prioritizing girls' empowerment, even after the end of the conference. Moreover, my participation would have given me the chance to learn the linkages of girls' empowerment to that of sustainable development, and to unlock and discover the potential within me....
It is very disappointing not being able attend CSW60 due to the denial of a US visa. I believe there is so much inside of me that I can develop and give back to girls in Liberia. As it is, very few girls are given the opportunity to sit at the table and participate in the discussions that affect our lives. This opportunity would have helped me to explore new ideas and be inspired to do more.
The fact is that even if a girl has big dreams and hopes, her dreams and hopes have no chance of becoming real until she is given the opportunities and resources to achieve them. By being denied a visa, another girl loses the opportunity to be transformed, motivated, and inspired to make a difference.
Unfortunately, Norwu's experience is not unique. Many adolescent girls from Africa and Latin America are profiled as "flight risks" - poor girls with no future in their country who would likely overstay their visa in the United States.
And herein lies the problem. As long as we - United Nations officials, policymakers, visa officers, and decision makers of all kinds - continue to view girls like Norwu as poor girls with no future, that is exactly what too many of them will forever remain. Their voices will remain silent, their power invisible.
In 2011, on behalf of the Girls Advocacy Forum in Liberia, Norwu presented a decree to Nobel Prize winner President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and stated, "We decree that we will be stakeholders of our own development. We, the future leaders of Liberia, are the base to which Liberia will be shaped."
Girls are their own best advocates, able to effectively articulate both their own needs and solutions. Norwu, and millions of girls like her, have the potential to transform their countries and the world - but only if we choose to listen.