Earlier this month at the United Nations in New York, I stood beside Lilibeth, a 17-year-old girl from the Philippines, as she declared, “Strong girls like me are the hope for the future. We are the change-makers. I may be small, but I have a big voice.”
I could not agree more.
Lilibeth was sharing her story at the UN at their Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), an annual multi-day summit that convenes hundreds of women representing UN member states and NGOs from all regions of the world. I was there with Lilibeth and other girls and women who participate in programming run by Global G.L.O.W., the nonprofit I founded six years ago. We partner with organizations on the ground in vulnerable communities, like Lilibeth’s, to tackle the urgent challenges facing girls globally. Together, we run programs that invest in girls. Our focus is on education, healthcare, and mentorship; with the goal of breaking poverty cycles to improve communities and ultimately achieve gender equality and a better world for everyone.
Before any of this work can take shape, we begin by doing one very important thing: we listen to women and girls. They are the experts on their own experiences and in describing barriers to their success. Never has this fact been more evident than it is today. The #MeToo movement continues to make headlines and spark heated conversations in the US, as well as in other countries. Fueling the movement are women who refuse to let their voices continue to be silenced. One woman who speaks her truth emboldens another to tell her story. A few empower many; which enables more and more women to be heard. We start by listening.
We listen to Subashi, who participates in a Global G.L.O.W. program in Nepal. “Most parents only send boys to school, thinking they will earn more money,” she says. Indeed, more than 130 million girls around the world do not attend school. We listen to Pond Lika from Cambodia, who tells us, “Some people think girls are nothing. I want to show them girls are everything.” According to a survey by the Dove Self Esteem Fund, seven in ten girls do not think they are “good enough”. What can we do to help turn these numbers around?
There are many barriers that must be overcome to raise the voices of girls and women so they can advocate for themselves and make changes in these critical areas. When a girl can’t read, write, or feel free to tell her story, her voice cannot be amplified. This needs to change. Global G.L.O.W.’s largest program, the HerStory Campaign, supports and encourages girls to share their stories and advocate for themselves through literacy and mentorship in 27 countries (including the US). We train local mentors to support girls’ emotional and educational journeys, and empower them to tell their stories.
Nearly 6,000 girls are involved with the HerStory campaign today. We were fortunate to have a few of them travel from Nepal, the Philippines, and Kenya to be a part of the 62nd CSW with us. I watched these girls and their mentors stand tall at a podium in front of a large international audience to fearlessly tell their stories in their own words. They not only spoke of the challenges facing their communities; they also shared the action plans they’re implementing to address those challenges. These are not “hopefully someday” action plans. They’re happening, right now — by girls, for girls. And they’re making a measurable positive impact on the community and inspiring others to act in the process. In the past year, Kenyan girls have built safe spaces for study and mentorship. In Nepal, girls brought mothers together to learn and practice advocating for their daughters’ educations. In the Philippines, Lilibeth’s group organized reproductive health seminars to reduce teenage pregnancies and keep girls in school.
For everyone in that room who heard them speak, it was clear that our hope as a planet relies on empowering and listening to girls. We don’t have a moment to waste. All of us will benefit from girls and women who are strong, healthy, educated, and able to take on the world’s challenges.
We know what needs to be done, and we can get there from here. An educated, confident woman has the skills and information she needs to be a better parent, worker and citizen. Keeping a girl in secondary school can increase her future earnings by 10-20 percent; and women who are paid a fair wage for their work invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities.
I urge you to get involved. Show solidarity for all the amazing girls and women who are pressing for progress on such critical issues. Watch this video highlighting some of the inspiring girl-led community action plans supported by Global G.L.O.W. Then connect with us on social media and share these girls’ powerful stories so they reach far and wide.
Amplifying women and girls’ voices is the first important step to ignite their power as a force for global transformation. Let’s listen carefully to what they have to say.
Kylie Schuyler is the founder and CEO of Global G.L.O.W. (Girls Leading Our World).