By Denise Dunning, PhD
Founder & Executive Director of Rise Up
In celebration of International Women's Day, we honor women leaders who are building a better world, and reflect on the enduring obstacles to gender equity that we continue to fight. Next week's 60th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a critical space to examine the progress we've made and the challenges we face in advancing the rights of women worldwide.
This year, CSW will focus on the linkages between women's empowerment and sustainable development, creating a unique opportunity for activists and researchers to advocate with global policymakers for women's rights.
The importance of supporting women to come together and advocate for our rights is undeniable. But I do have one question. Where are the girls?
While women's empowerment is crucial, girls' empowerment is also 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.
Girls know best their own realities and challenges. Girls are their own best advocates, able to effectively articulate both their own needs and solutions. Girls need and deserve the opportunity to raise their own voices and speak out for their own priorities. Yet, the global community continues to pretend that creating spaces for women is tantamount to ensuring girls' meaningful participation.
People often ask me if we are expecting too much for girls to stand up for their rights and advocate with decision makers. Policymakers tell me that they doubt that their own daughters would be able to speak out to a group of policymakers during a UN meeting, much less a marginalized girl from a poor community. Too many decision makers doubt girls' ability to speak out for their own priorities, to advocate for their rights.
And while I understand this point of view, I know it is wrong. I have seen a 15-year-old indigenous Mayan girl from Guatemala give a keynote advocating for girls' rights from the floor of the UN, alongside Ban Ki Moon and Melinda Gates. I have watched an 18-year-old girl from rural Malawi give one of the most inspiring TED Talks I have ever seen, sharing her powerful work to end child marriage with over a million viewers.
So what will it take to create spaces for girls' meaningful participation? Beyond decision makers' resistance to hearing girls' voices, logistical and financial challenges are not simple to overcome. Traveling to New York is expensive and girls under the age of 18 need a chaperone. And getting a visa to come to the US is no small feat, especially for girls like Norwu, a girl leader from Liberia.
Norwu was selected to join Rise Up's delegation to attend the 60th Session of the UN CSW to share her powerful advocacy for girls' education in Liberia. But when Norwu went to the US Embassy in Monrovia, her visa request was denied. The consular officer probably saw Norwu as a flight risk, a poor girl with no future in Liberia who would likely overstay her visa and never leave the US.
And herein lies the problem. As long as we all - UN officials, policymakers, consular 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 become.
But if we open our eyes to the possibility, strength, and power that girls can have, they will become leaders who change our world.
Norwu wrote a prescient blog in 2014 where she shared her own experience, and that of too many millions of girls around the world: "We are the victims and survivors of early marriage, teenage pregnancy, sexual violence, discrimination, and the lack of healthcare. We are the ones left behind in our society for so many reasons, especially ignorance and the high poverty rate in our country."
When are we going to stop leaving girls like Norwu behind?
Rise Up Achieves large-scale change by ensuring that girls, youth and women can stay healthy, finish school, escape poverty and overcome violence. We invest in local solutions, innovation and advocacy to end injustice and improve health, education, livelihoods and rights around the globe.
Rise Up's Let Girls Lead program is building a global movement that empowers girls ages 10-24 to attend school, stay healthy, overcome violence and stand up against child marriage. Let Girls Lead's model of advocacy, grant-making and network building has contributed to better health, education, livelihoods and rights for more than seven million girls in Malawi, Ethiopia, Liberia, Uganda, Guatemala and Honduras.