Raising the Girl Agenda in Myanmar

We are still coming off the buzz of a really energetic and earnest Girls’ National Conference in Myanmar. Bringing together adolescent girls from across 70 diverse communities, the conference supported girls to work together and articulate an agenda to submit to regional and national lawmakers.

This agenda will be in the form of a letter. It will describe the barriers faced by girls in communities across Myanmar and the ways that law-makers can help to knock down these barriers so that all girls can achieve their full potential.

Last year, we made a big deal of International Day of the Girl – dedicating almost an entire season to it! We created opportunities for girls from all of our project communities to contribute directly to the development of an agenda for national and regional change – an agenda that would support girls’ development, education, access to safe work, freedom of movement, expression and beyond.

There were two key steps to making this work. Firstly, we held Regional Forums in 15 geographic hubs. Then, based on the outcomes from those events, we built the content and activities needed to make the National Conference both productive and deeply connected to the views and attitudes of adolescent girls.

In the lead up to those Regional Forums, our staff moved around the country with a mission to ensure every girl currently enrolled in our weekly leadership circles — over 3,000 girls — could attend a forum in her region. This would mean every girl could meet with others from nearby areas to discuss the specific, and sometimes invisible, barriers they share which can diminish self-perception and limit  choice.

Girls’ Regional Forums

The forums were focused on consensus-building activities. The day’s discussions were based on what we already knew about the situations of girls in different areas and the concerns girls have expressed to us in the past. In small groups, girls worked through various possible barriers to identify which applied most directly to their lives. They also discussed specific examples of times when, as a girl, they have encountered a barrier, been discriminated against, or felt unheard.

Girls’ National Conference

Immediately following the regional forums, we held our inaugural Girls’ National Conference in the City Hall of the ancient capital of Mandalay. The theme was “Girls, do you know you can fly?”  Attending the conference were 140 adolescent girls – peer-selected delegates representing nearly all of Girl Determined’s project communities.  Each spokesgirl shared on behalf of girls in her unique community, speaking out in a broader discussion with other girls facing sometimes similar and sometimes different issues.

Over two full days, the conference brought girls’ voices and experiences to the fore, while encouraging girls to act as change-makers in their communities and consider a different future for girls and women. Girls heard from one another and were introduced to basic concepts of civic action. Through consensus-building activities, they drafted a joint-letter expressing the concise needs of adolescent girls nation-wide.

Four main issues came out as the most detrimental to girls’ success in Myanmar:

    • inadequate or limited access to education
    • inadequate or limited access to health, nutrition, and sanitation needs
    • feeling unsafe and not knowing how to respond in dangerous situations
    • feeling unable to make decisions and express opinions about their own lives

We expect to see more girls taking issues into their own hands by expressing their needs in a structured way and demanding accountability by those in positions to make decisions.

Building On The Outcomes

Now that the conference has ended, two tasks remain.

Firstly, we will refine and revise the letter before the girls present it to members of parliament. A delegation of six girls from the conference will present the letter and express their concerns and hopes directly to parliamentarians.

Secondly, we will report back to ALL the girls who contributed their experience and insight on what their inputs have gone towards – both at the National Conference and during the direct appeal to lawmakers.

We will report back to all these girls through an article in our Wut Hmon magazine, and through a summary video of the National Conference.  This way, girls who weren’t at the national level gathering can see how their concerns were carried forth by their peers, and can experience the full process from regional forums to visits with parliaments.

We are excited to see how this plays out in the coming months, as girls’ voices resonate through Myanmar to create awareness of the hardships girls face, and of how they can rise up together.

Teenage Girls in Argentina Deserve Better

As multilateral organizations continue to research sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America, I’ve been learning many sad truths about my country.

This year, we learned that Argentina’s teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in the Southern Cone (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). It’s estimated that 109,000 teenagers and 3,000 girls under 15 years old give birth to a child every year. These numbers make up 15% of annual births in the country.

Most of these pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted. UNFPA’s latest study, The Power of Choice, shows that Argentina’s maternal mortality rates are also much higher than in the rest of this region. For every 100,000 births per country, 52 mothers die in Argentina, 44 in Brazil, 22 in Chile and 15 in Uruguay.

The results of this study have strengthened the call for inclusive sexual education, accessible contraceptives and the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina. 

Adolescent maternity rates are higher in communities living in poverty, where girls are also less likely to go to school or have access to healthcare and contraceptives. When a girl gets pregnant at an early age, she’s very unlikely to continue her studies, which perpetuates a circle of poverty for the girl and her family. She’s also less likely to survive the pregnancy and the birth.

Earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl had a baby in the Chaco province in northeast Argentina, where poverty and early maternity rates are among the highest in the country (according to UNICEF more than half of children under 17 years old in Chaco were living in poverty in 2016).

Her name has been kept secret, but her living conditions have shocked the country. She was malnourished, anaemic and had pneumonia, yet never received treatment for any of these conditions. She was living with an older man, her boyfriend, and wasn’t going to school.

When her 20-year-old aunt took her to the hospital for a fever, they discovered she was 28 weeks pregnant. The fact that this girl was pregnant for 7 months without knowing it…it’s hard to imagine how neglected she was. She had to have a C-section because of her extremely weak condition. The baby lived only a few hours, and the girl died less than a week later.

So many things went wrong for her.

The health system in the province went beyond failing her, because it didn’t even know she existed until it was too late. She didn’t have family to take care of her and the system did nothing. Her health was gravely deteriorating and the system did nothing. She was in an abusive situation and the system did nothing.

Her story breaks my heart. And it hurts me even more to know that she’s not the only one living like this and won’t be the last to end up like this. She deserved better. All of them deserve better. 

International Day of the Girl 2018

I’m very excited about International Day of the Girl because this year, I am spending the day working at an organization fighting to ensure that all girls have access to free, safe and quality education. The more time I spend working in this environment, the more inspirational girls’ stories I have the chance to hear.

Girls all over the world are dedicating their lives to stopping climate change, fighting for gender equality and human rights, reducing poverty and increasing access to education and healthcare.

In the United States, Mari Copeni – also known as Little Miss Flint  is fighting for her community’s right to clean water by putting an end to the Flint Water Crisis. Zuriel Oduwole, a girls’ education advocate, is using documentary film and public speaking to highlight the importance of access to technology for gender equality in education.

In Afghanistan, Fatemah Qaderyan and her all-girls robotics team are fighting for girls’ right to education and encouraging them to get involved in STEM. In South Africa, Kiara Nirghin is saving her country’s drought-plagued crops and inspiring girls to get involved in STEM and to find ways to use their skills to solve problems in their communities.

In Nicaragua, Edelsin Linette Mendez is raising awareness about the crippling effects of climate change, especially when it comes to coffee crops in her home. In Indonesia, Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags in October 2013 to stop the use, sale and production of single-use plastic bags.

In Ecuador, Nina Gualinga is fighting for indigenous peoples’ rights. In Argentina, teenage girls are fighting for their sexual and reproductive rights like access to birth control, quality sexual education and free, legal and safe abortions. In Mexico, young women are taking action against street harassment.  

The fact that these girls are making such a huge impact in their communities proves that when girls are educated and empowered they can change the world.

In my case, I’m lucky to have a younger sister who brightens my life every day. She is always there to lift me up when I’m bringing myself down. She is always protecting and defending her loved ones, especially those who can’t defend themselves. I will always admire her unique artistic talent (she created the illustration for this blog post!), her selflessness and her bravery. I love how comfortable she is in her own skin. She makes my life so much better just by being a part of it. So today I want to celebrate her and all the girls who make us smile every day. 

I hope today you take some time to celebrate the girls in your life. Remind them that you are there for them. Make sure they know you will support them as they chase their dreams and fight for what they believe in.

Happy International Day of the Girl!

5 Things I’ve Learned from Malala Yousafzai

Today is Malala Yousafzai’s 21st birthday. As an activist, advocate for girls’ education, champion of human rights and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala’s words and actions offer inspiration and hope to people all over the world.

In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala as she travelled home from school. She was 15-years-old, and had already been advocating for girls’ right to education in her home country of Pakistan for several years.

One year later, on her 16th birthday, Malala gave a speech at the UN that cemented her position as one of the most inspiring, influential and important young people alive today. In the 4 years since that speech, Malala has turned personal passion into a powerful international movement working to transform the future – not only for girls and women, but for the world at large.

The same summer that Malala spoke at the UN, I graduated from university. In the 4 years since that speech, I have been working to build my career in gender equality and women’s rights. As I’ve done so I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about what it takes to create change in the world and what it means to be successful.

Some of the most invaluable lessons I have learned so far – in both my professional and personal life – have been from the women I admire and look to as role models. Women like Malala.

And yes, she may have only just turned 21, but the world seems finally to be getting the message – underestimate young women at your peril. I believe there is so much we can learn from Malala Yousafzai, and so in honour of her birthday, I’ve made a list of 5 lessons she’s taught me in my career so far!

1. Speak up

“We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”

It can sometimes be easy to take the freedom to raise my voice, and especially the freedom to do so in safety, for granted. Malala reminds me that there are millions of girls and women without that luxury, and if we can do so must use our voices to make sure that that those who are silenced can be heard.

2. Be brave

“There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”

Malala’s story is one of immense courage. She has continued to fight for what she knows to be right in the face adversity that many could scarcely imagine, and she stands up time and time again against fear and threats and violence. Her bravery encourages me to be more bold and her refusal to give in to fear reminds me that I should do the same.

3. Be determined

“I’m just a committed and stubborn person who wants to see every child get [a] quality education – who wants to see women having equal rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world.” 

No matter what else is happening around her, Malala never wavers from her commitment to girls’ education. I often feel frustrated when it seems that change happens far too slowly – but Malala shows me the value of dedication and conviction.

4. Be knowledgeable

“None of the nine biggest countries in Africa, Latin America and developing Asia have increased their education budgets. Several are even making drastic cuts, putting more girls out of school.”

Malala’s knowledge when it comes to her cause reminds me that if I want to change something, I have to understand how it works in the first place. It’s clear that Malala understands the issues facing countries around the world preventing girls from accessing education, and it’s that knowledge that makes people listen up and take her seriously.

5. Be humble 

“I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”

Despite her many achievements, awards and fame (she is the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize) Malala always speaks and acts with kindness, grace and humility. It might not be specific to work in gender equality, but it’s a quality I admire and try to replicate all the same!

Feeling inspired? Follow Malala on Twitter, make a donation to the Malala Fund, watch He Named Me Malala or check out her interview with David Letterman