“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger Of A Single Story”
We’ve heard it so much we’ve become numb to it. Raise girls’ voices. Girls’ voices must be heard. Stop silencing girls.
or many not working in the field of women’s rights, those words have started to ring hollow, especially in countries where Hilary Clinton commands the attention of thousands at rallies, one op-ed by Angelina Jolie sets off a firestorm of discourse about cancer between doctors and patients alike, and Anna Wintour’s approval or lack thereof can define success in the multibillion dollar fashion industry.
Yet, these examples are a glaring anomaly in a world that ignores not only the voices, but the shouting, screaming, crying or pleading voices of girls in every country. With many girls, their half of the story isn’t the ‘secondly’. The girls themselves are the ‘secondly’.
The ability to articulate and express your own life story, without fear of retaliation or denial, may seem something of an abstract issue, especially in comparison to the very tangible problems of physical violence or resource deprivation.
Nonetheless, it is a legitimate one.
The ability to stand up and be heard, in a big or small way, is integral to a young woman’s development. To be firm in one’s opinions, to be able to construct the narrative of one’s own life the way one interpreted it feeds into confidence, into agency, into the ability to adovocate for oneself and one’s rights.
The power to tell your own story doesn’t mean providing a woman a high-profile outlet or a mass audience, but fostering the ability and belief to know you can take control of your narrative, which is inherently powerful. It gives a girl the ability to say:
“I was raped,” instead of, “Someone had sex with me and I didn’t enjoy it.”
“I was married too young against my will,” instead of, “I did my duty.”
“I was abused,” instead of, “I deserved punishment.”
What’s more, it gives her the confidence to hold onto that knowledge in the face of many opposing her, which many do, and many will.
So while many may view funding storytelling platforms or training writing workshops to women as a secondary use of resources, teaching girls and women that they too, have a valid voice and something to say and the right to be heard, is not a luxury, but a necessity. We can throw all the money, ad campaigns and pink ribbons we want at the issue of gender equality, but it means nothing without empowering girls themselves.
Luckily, organizations at the United Nations General Assembly recognized it. Girl Effect gathered girls from the United States, Bulgaria, Malawi and Guatemala, among others, and brought them to New York so that they’d recognize their ability to speak and be heard on a global level.
The girls themselves ranged from confident and outgoing to shy, professional bloggers and writers to those who had yet to make a social media account. Each had something to say about their home countries, some ambitious and some heartbreaking.
It’s easy to dismiss the venture as nothing more than a nice gesture, or symbolic at best—it was only a handful of girls out of a world full of many others who are actively silenced, much less placed in front of a microphone on a world stage.
At the same time, it did show world leaders that girls, young as they, can recognize the world they live in adn speak confidently about the problems they face in their homes, and the hopes they have for the future. It showed girls are more than passive. That they’re bright, enthusiastic, funny, engaged, confident, brave, savvy and articulate. It may have been symbolic, but it was a powerful symbol.
Listen to what some of these girls had to say:
Cover Photo Credit: Robin Norgren, Flickr Creative Commons