Ruhy Patel, 17, lives in Doylestown, Pa. When she was 15 she was planning to run for student council office. “All the other people running were boys,” she says, “and people were like, ‘Well, you’re not going to win.’ You feel intimidated because you’re the only girl in the room. It makes you question if you’d be OK in the field of politics.”
Did she drop out? No.
Did she win. “I did!”
“I feel like it kind of makes you want to try harder when people say no,” says Patel.
That could be the motto for the activists of Girl Up. There are nearly 5,000 teenage girls in 66 countries who volunteer for the U.N. Foundation group. They speak out and raise money so every girl can go to school — there are an estimated 62 million who don’t — and can receive official government identification papers, can get proper health care and gain the skills to pursue her dreams.
This week, we met with 13 “teen advisers” from Girl Up. They were a few of the 225 members in Washington, D.C., for the annual leadership summit.
Unlike the 62 million out-of-school girls, these Girl Up girls are all in school. They’re thinking about college; they lead comfortable lives. Sometimes their friends can’t understand their activism. “They don’t think we’re able to make a difference,” says Janet Ho, 18, who lives in Los Angeles. But that’s not true, she says.
Kennede Reese, 18, from Denver, mentions a SchoolCycle fundraiser. The proceeds were used to send bikes to girls in Malawi: “Because even though they have the school supplies, there’s no way to get to school to get the education they need. We think of the small things.”
The girls we spoke with all live in the U.S., but some have roots in the countries they’re trying to help. So they know firsthand what life can be like outside the American bubble.
“My family is from the most rural part of China,” says Amy Gong Liu, 18, of Alameda, Calif. “My dad was chosen to go to school instead of my aunt. My aunt was very brilliant, very outspoken about women’s issues.” But she never learned to read and write.
“When [my dad] told her he was going to have a daughter — me — she said, ‘Make sure you educate her, keep her in the loop at the dinner table, make sure she has a voice.’ ”
Liu pauses: “It’s hard not to think, ‘What if I was born in China and my aunt was born in America, and she had the opportunity [for] success and I didn’t?’ ”
Does the unfairness of it all make the teen leaders feel guilty?
The unanimous reply: Yes, yes, yes!
Yet they’ve learned that even though girls in low-income countries face many obstacles, they have a sense of hope and gratitude.
Ishana Nigam, 17, from Charlotte, N.C., visits India every year or so. That’s where her parents are from. The girls she meets have “a lack of education, poor health care,” she says. “But they’re not jealous of me. They always tell me, ‘I’m thankful for what I have, thankful just to be breathing.’ And that takes a toll on me because I have so many more things than they have.”
Meanwhile, all the girls bond over pop culture.
“I tutor refugees in Chicago,” says Celia Buckman, 16. “They’re 10 to 12, from all over, Malaysia, Kenya, India, Iraq. And they like to listen to ‘Shake It Off‘ by Taylor Swift. They come from all over the world, they practice different religions, speak different languages, but they can all sit down and watch Taylor Swift videos, and that’s great!”