As I stood by the security barriers, holding a sign that said “Girls Speak Out,” I could hear an ever-increasing murmur of voices coming toward me. Suddenly, a large crowd of girls turned the corner, their energy unusual and wonderfully disruptive of the typically subdued sounds of UN headquarters. In less than an hour, the UN ECOSOC chamber would be full of girls ready to hear stories from their counterparts all over the world.
The “Girls Speak Out” is the culminating event of the International Day of the Girl Summit, and is the only UN event which truly centers girls’ voices. The program was led by three Girls’ Advocates, who introduced the various speakers and contextualized the stories being shared with detailed and insightful reports on issues such as education, violence against girls, and climate change. I had met the three advocates at the Working Group on Girls meeting the previous week.They had told me about their ambitions to work for the UN, and how excited they were to be involved in the event.
The most important goal of the ‘Girls Speak Out’ is to provide a platform in the UN for girls’ voices, so that those with the power to affect policy hear about the issues uniquely facing girls. For months leading up to the event, girls from around the world send in stories, poems, spoken word pieces, and videos, and some of these are chosen to be performed at the Girls Speak Out. Four girl performers were responsible for giving life to these stories, and they did so through the metaphor of the ‘Girls in Crisis Helpline.’ Each performer wore a bright red headset, and throughout the event took ‘calls’ from girls who needed to tell their story. The girls used physical theatre to interpret the stories and poems, giving powerful and emotional deliveries. The professionalism of the girl performers was outstanding, and it was clear that the girls worked incredibly hard and put in long hours of rehearsal time to prepare for this event. The stories and poems spoke of abuse, racism, sexual harassment, education, child marriage, migration, and double standards. Throughout their performances, the girls repeated this mantra: “We love you, we believe you, and you are not alone.”
My favorite part of the ‘Girls Speak Out’ was hearing from the Girl Activists. They each delivered impassioned speeches about the specific issues for which they were fighting. An environmental activist from South Africa explained that because of climate change, girls in her community had to travel farther and farther to collect water. They had to go in groups to avoid harassment or assault from groups of boys or men. A Native American model and activist spoke about the work she had
been doing about representation in the fashion world, in the media, US history school curriculums, and in US dominant culture in general. She spoke about some videos she had made in partnership with Teen Vogue which had gone viral, and the vastly different comments she had received: some wonderful, some particularly hateful. One of the girl activists who came to the US from Argentina spent the first part of her childhood living in fear because of her family’s undocumented status. Although they were later able to become citizens, she is now fighting for the rights of DACA recipients and hopes to pursue a career in politics where she can represent those most affected by this country’s immigration laws. Finally, a girl activist from Brooklyn spoke about the phenomenon of school push-out, which disproportionately affects girls of color and those marginalized because of their religion. She reminded the audience that education in the US is still unequal, and policies such as dress codes, as well as the lack of representation in school curriculums, push young people out of educational systems.
Various dignitaries from the UN Deputy Secretary-General, UN Women, UNICEF, and the Canadian parliament gave speeches supporting girls’ rights. The event was not about the adults in the room, although their presence highlighted the significance of this summit.
By Elise Bragard