Hear me now: adolescent girls challenge global leaders to act

Article Date

01 October 2013

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Maria Eitel, CEO of the Nike Foundation, gestured to a group of adolescent girls and a boy from Pakistan, Malawi and Guatemala seated on the dais behind her.

“This is the only panel that looks like this happening in town,” she said.

Eitel is making a point about the lack of young voices – of girl’s voices, in particular – from around the world during what is perhaps the busiest week of debates on global issues annually: the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative, which both convened last week in New York.

Foreign dignitaries, issue advocates, corporate leaders and heads of state shuttled between the two conferences during the week to discuss global challenges and invoke new commitments to address them. Amidst this high-level pomp, in a conference room at a nearby hotel, Eitel’s foundation hosted a discussion among adolescent boys and girls.

“Now is our moment!” girls in the room declared through handheld microphones.

Their moment is the UN’s review of global progress against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aim to halve poverty and achieve gender equality by 2015, among other targets. Global leaders are now beginning to debate what the next set of goals should be. The girls in the conference room came together to declare their rights and urge leaders to listen – and to act in their interest as they develop the new post-2015 MDGs.

They represented 500-plus girls whose insights on how global leaders can help create a real future for girls worldwide are captured in the Girl Declaration. Developed by the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect movement, girls’ straightforward statements are peppered throughout the declaration: “I was not put on this earth to be invisible.” “I was not born to be denied.” “I belong to me.”

The declaration sets out proposed development goals that will help girls overcome obstacles so they may grow into healthy, productive women. The goals include ensuring that girls go to secondary school. That global leaders work to end child marriage. Provide comprehensive sex education. Protect girls’ inheritance and property rights. The list goes on.

Studies show that improving girls’ lives and opportunities can yield global benefits. For instance, for every additional year that a girl is in school, she is less likely to marry early and more likely to delay childbirth. Her children are more likely to survive and she will experience a 10 to 20 percent increase in income. She is more likely to reinvest those earnings in her family and community than her male counterparts.

Girls are urging that we listen to them as development priorities are set. “If I could talk to global leaders,” said Elba Velasquez of Guatemala, “I’d tell them that girls have potential too.”

With the right support, girls like Elba have the potential to be the future leaders, mothers and advocates who will educate families and help pull communities out of poverty. At the UN last week, they pushed their way to the tables of power to demand a chance to help chart the course of history. They are not alone: Earlier this year Theresa Leone Meyer, an American teenager, urged the Commission on the Status of Women for increased investment in girls’ leadership, health services and education worldwide. In July, Malala Yousafzai returned to the UN to demand better education for girls following the attack on her life in Pakistan last year. And later this month on International Day of the Girl, the voices and development recommendations of the 508 girls featured in the Girl Declaration will be presented at the UN and in Washington, D.C., in an appeal to governments worldwide.

It isn’t that girls don’t have a voice; it’s that we haven’t been listening. Slowly, that’s starting to change.