They are seven girls in their teens and early 20s, awake at the ungodly (for them) hour of 8:30 a.m. With sleepy smiles, the young women slip into a windowless conference room in a Washington, D.C. hotel to talk to a reporter, who’s curious to find out: What’s it like to be a global girl activist?
And they’re the experts. They’re supporters of the U.N. Foundation group called Girl Up, which has the manifesto of “uniting girls to change the world.”
Girl Up fights for the rights of the 600 million adolescent girls of the developing world. Many of these rights we take for granted: going to school, receiving proper health care, living in safety and simply being counted at birth (because, for example, if you don’t have official proof of a child’s age, then how can governments fight against child labor?)
These seven Girl Up activists run clubs in their schools. They speak out in public forums and raise money for U.N. programs that help their cause. Since Girl Up began in 2010, the clubs have collected more than $100,000.
Being involved in Girl Up is a serious commitment of time and energy. But the girls want me to know that activism is also fun.
“We get into super girly talk,” says Alexandra Leane, who cofounded a Girl Up club at her New Jersey high school. “We show each other pictures of hot guys,” teases Gloria Samen of Potomac, Md. Then they get down to business: Spreading the word about girl’s issues.
Business brought them to the District in June. They were lobbying on Capitol Hill. “Girls just don’t get as much resources and opportunities as men do,” says Aklesiya Dejene, who emigrated from Ethiopia to Chicago two years ago. “I want to represent them.”
In the freewheeling conversation, the young women shared their ideas about what the world’s girls need. Carolina Lopez, who’s from Sao Paulo, Brazil, but goes to school in Pennsylvania, wants them to have a chance to express themselves in sports. Rocio Ortega, a first generation Mexican-American, who lives in Los Angeles, agrees: “Sports is where girls can find their voice and self-confidence.”
But boys can get in the way. When Lopez was in fourth grade, the boys she wanted to play soccer with went to her mom and said, “Can you please ask her to stop playing with us. She’s bothering us.” Lopez is still indignant: “I wasn’t like catching the ball with my hands! Or doing something I wasn’t supposed to. I was just there because I wanted to play. I was humiliated.”
Ortega visited girls in an Ethiopian refugee camp, and they had similar concerns. They told her: “We want our own space to play sports. We want our own basketball court without having to worry about boys playing next to us.” Girl Up supports programs that provide sports venues for girls.
As the American-born daughter of Cameroonian immigrants, Gloria Samen is keenly aware of obstacles girls face in her own culture: “I grew up watching generations of silent women, women who were expected to stay home,” she says. Even now, her father thinks she should change the channel on the TV as part of her daughterly duties — even though the remote is by his side. She wants girls to fight unfair expectations.
Samen raised $3,000 for Girl Up and is proud that the money makes a difference in the lives of girls in faraway places. “We’re able to change the lives of girls we would never meet,” she says. “This women’s network is an unbreakable bond. I think it’s so cool.”
Sometimes the goal is to give girls the power to speak out. Girls in her country don’t always want to “stand up and say their name,” says Thandiwe Diego of Belize. She stumbled upon Girl Up on the internet and started a club with the help of her mom. “They’re really shy.” And they can’t always afford high school fees. So Diego and her mother encourage reticent girls to apply for scholarships. While in D.C., she got a joyful e-mail from her mom telling her that some girls had applied! It’s a small but sweet success.
These seven activists know what it’s like to face opposition. Jinwen Tung of China, now a student at Barnard, started a feminist-minded club in China. “Was it hard?” I ask. “Yes!” she declares. “Even my male classmates sometimes couldn’t understand why women are so obsessed” with fighting for equality. “To them, it’s just not necessary.”
But she’s an optimist. “I think today’s boys are more able to put themselves in the shoes of girls,” she says, especially if the girls of Girl Up “tell the boys” about the problems that girls face.
As for my curiosity about what it means to be a girl activist: I came away with the impression that it means living in two opposite worlds. All the girls are keenly aware of what it’s like to have privileges and what it’s like to face hardships. Gloria Samen sums it up with a story contrasting her life in the wealthy suburb of Potomac, Md., and her mom’s girlhood in Cameroon.
On her first day as a high school senior, last September, Samen wanted to drive to school. “My mother was like, ‘You can’t take the car tomorrow because bla bla bla.’ I was so annoyed. I had just got my license. She was like, ‘Gloria, I walked four miles barefoot to get to school. I’d hold my shoes in my hand because I didn’t want my shoes to get ruined in the mud because if your shoes are ruined, your uniform is not complete. You don’t get to complain about not driving to school.’ ”