5 Things I’ve Learned from Malala Yousafzai

Today is Malala Yousafzai’s 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 years since that speech, I have been working to build my career in gender equality and human 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 be young, 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

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!

Challenging Prejudices in Girls’ Circles

The following account, written by Aleta, comes from a Girl Determined Circle at a Buddhist monastery in a rural village on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

“They have beards…They are not welcome here…They are bad people,” explain the girls matter-of-factly when asked about Muslims.

In a country where divisive prejudices based on religion and culture have kept it at war with itself for over half a century, such beliefs are deeply rooted.  Myanmar is known for being predominantly Buddhist, a religion considered by outsiders as one of the most tolerant and peaceful, teaching that practicing kindness to others will bring an individual good karma. So, what has aroused such hatred towards another group of people?

Mud puddles linger on the small dirt field behind the monastery. The girls set up their makeshift bamboo-pole net and mark out boundary lines with small plastic cones, as they do routinely every week. Curious boys and younger children gather around the edges of the field to watch, and to fetch stray volleyballs.

The girls arrive in simple cotton trousers with t-shirts or light floral dresses, the muddy ground seeming not to deter them in the slightest. They go about their drills without hesitation – taking it in turns to set the volleyball back to the server, toes squelching in the mud and feet disappearing into puddles.  Mini matches follow, and in contrast with their early timid nature and orderly appearance, the girls’ behaviour gradually becomes more competitive as the session progresses and their confidence grows.

When the session ends, ‘Ma Josephine’, Girl Determined’s ‘Colorful Girls’ Sports Coordinator, sits down with a group of girls in their first year of the program. They have just completed a module on trafficking and safe migration, so the discussion veers towards unsafe situations and how to protect yourself. A few girls speak up to explain that they feel unsafe around men and around Muslim people. Picking up on the blatant discrimination and entrenched prejudices, Josephine reacts swiftly abut gently, bringing the issue closer to home by asking what the girls would think if a Muslim person came into their community.

“We would not like him…They would not be welcome here…He would be a bad person,” they answer without hesitation.

Similar answers continue until Josephine suggests the girls pause for a moment and think.  Using a calm voice, her next words seemed momentarily to stump the group: “What if I told you that I was Muslim? Would that make me a bad person? Would you not want to talk to me?”

“Well, we would still like you,” chime several of the girls, “We like talking to you…It wouldn’t matter then, because we know you and you are a kind and fun person.”

“So,” Josephine reasons, “just because someone has a certain belief or background that is different from you, does that mean that person is automatically bad?  No, it does not, because they might also be a nice and fun person.  Therefore, shall we agree that not all Muslims are bad people? And shall we perhaps not be too quick to judge someone based on a single piece of information about them, with a presumption that may or may not be accurate, but might instead be hurtful?”

There are nods of agreement and giggles from the girls, alongside a few genuinely contemplative faces.

Time is up and the session ends. That was all the time Josephine had available to unpack complex cultural myths, for it was only a short visit to a sports session, but already many of the girls had shown willingness to challenge the status quo. In that short time, a few girls’ seemingly steadfast prejudices had already been brought into question.

As you will have read in the media, there has been a recent surge in tragic violence in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State. The violence, a complicated mix of communal distrust, military force and, of course, the realities of the history of the area, has prompted critical discussions in our weekly adolescent girls’ Circles.

Intended to be safe spaces, ‘Colorful Girls’ Circles and sports sessions enable girls to discuss issues, feelings, opinions and concern freely. Discussions about people who are ‘different’ are common and integral to our ethos. While a significant number of girls and staff in our programs come from minority groups, the composition of each Circle depends on the demographics of each community.

This session with Ma Josephine may have been the first time some of the girls had ever been prompted to think critically about their assumptions.  A seed had been planted in their minds, and even if they had not entirely changed their opinion, at least they had been presented with a different perspective and an opportunity to try understanding an issue that has fueled ongoing conflict for centuries.  In a country with one of the longest-standing civil wars, tolerance is nothing short of essential if peace and equal rights are to be realized.

While there is still much to be done, we are slowly but surely equipping more and more girls with the necessary skills and understanding around conflict resolution, human dignity, and the benefits of being ‘colorful.’

From Child Worker to Girl with Big Dreams

Written by Anna Safronova, Fellow at SOS Children’s Villages  

In 2001, Diane* was born to a family of poor farmers in a small town in Burundi—a landlocked nation in East Africa where 81% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. The money her parents earned wasn’t enough to provide Diane the stable life she desperately needed as a child. Sadly, when Diane was six, her parents were unable to cover the costs of medical care and ultimately lost their lives to malaria. Without a family, Diane found herself completely alone. Instead of starting primary school, she was forced to work as a domestic worker in order to survive.

I was six years old at the time. I felt alone, confused, rejected, with nowhere to go,” Diane said. “I looked for work as a domestic helper. I moved from family to family looking for a place that could be the home I had lost. I really suffered.

Diane’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly not unique. Her plight of having to work in order to survive is shared by hundreds of thousands of orphaned children in Burundi—a country which is ranked one of the 10 worst countries in the world for child labor. In fact, nearly one in four children in Burundi is a child worker.

Many of these children are forced into domestic servitude either to support their families or even just to support themselves. While at work, they are more likely to become victims of verbal or physical abuse.  Orphaned girls in Burundi like Diane are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor like sex trafficking, exploitation or domestic work in private households. The toll this can have on these girls’ emotional and mental health is significant.

Child labor also has an especially detrimental effect on girls’ education. Girls often leave school disproportionally earlier than their male peers to undertake domestic work.  Sadly, by forgoing school for work, their chances of becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of society are significantly diminished.

One way to break this cycle is to make sure that girls are given a chance to grow up in stable families. Families that allow them to be children and do what children are supposed to do: learn, play and feel loved. For girls who live with vulnerable families, it’s critical that we help them become stable and strong through family support programs in order to prevent family breakdown and child abandonment. For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, we need to work tirelessly to make sure they are able to grow up in a stable, loving family environment — like the one Diane is growing up in today.

In 2009, when Diane was eight years old, she was welcomed to live with a family headed by an SOS Mother—a trained caregiver—at the SOS Children’s Village in Cibitoke, Burundi. The village is one of 570 SOS Children’s Villages working around the world to provide loving and stable families for children in need. Growing up in such an environment provides girls like Diane with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: an education, medical care and a stable family.

My mind is settled now and I am performing well in school,” said Diane, when asked about her life in the SOS Village. “My SOS Mother helped me to feel important and to regain my self-confidence. I now know that the power to become what I want to be in life lies within me. Now that I have a chance to go to school – good school – I know my future depends on the effort I put into my schoolwork.

Diane’s transformation from a child worker to a child full of dreams is a testament to how a stable family can change the course of a girl’s life. Today, Diane, 13, is free of everyday worries of survival and receives the love and support she needs to dream big and pursue her dreams.

As global citizens, we should all work together to empower girls worldwide by providing them with the building blocks needed to realize their full potential: a stable home, education and quality health care.

This summer you can change the course of a girl’s life by supporting SOS Children’s Villages’ Invest in a Girl campaign. Sponsor a girl and receive an ALEX AND ANI Sand Castle Charm Bangle, designed for SOS Children’s Villages. 

*Name changed for privacy reasons