13 August 2015: The best part of my job at Plan International is working directly with young people.
I’m in Nairobi this week witnessing the astonishing work of 16 young female advocates, as they bring their voices and those of girls across the country to some of the most powerful and influential people in Kenya.
I first met the girls in January, when they were eager to absorb as much as they could about girls’ rights issues in their country and around the world. They wanted to hone their advocacy skills and discuss how they could persuade others to join them, from their peers and families to community leaders, the media and crucially – their government.
They were all so full of ideas and aspirations, and each of them had powerful stories they couldn’t wait to share. In these girls, I saw our future Wangari Maathai – the Kenyan political activist who rocked Kenya in the seventies.
Insight and articulation
The girls also elected advocates to represent them in a number of international events. The first of these was the Commission on the Status of Women. It was here that 16-year-old Hope managed to negotiate her way to the front row of an event hosted by the Kenyan government in the heart of the UN.
I sat, gobsmacked, as she was spontaneously asked to deliver the closing intervention, and did so with more gravitas, insight and articulation than any of the other adult speakers. She directly addressed the First Lady of her country and her country’s ambassador to the UN, respectfully rebuking the panel for failing, in an event focusing on HIV and AIDS in Kenya, to mention the disproportionate impact the disease has on girls and their crucial role in combating the epidemic.
Here too, another girl, Patricia, managed to evade security and a tight scrum of government officials, media and development experts to secure a crucial dialogue with Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya.
Patricia managed to secure her commitment to meet with the girls back in Kenya. Like Hope, Patricia navigated New York and a punishing schedule of meetings and events, even though she had never left Kenya before. Patricia also happens to be blind.
Insisting on their rights
Yesterday the girls duly hosted the First Lady. Watching them prepare this week, I could see that they have all achieved so much since I saw them last in January. They told me about fierce debates in the Children’s Assemblies where they finally had the tools and understanding to insist on their rights when boys, feeling threatened, began to introduce motions that reinforced sexism.
They even convinced some of the boys to come over to their side and not see gender equality as a zero-sum game. They told me how they were raising awareness in their communities and among their peers on the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The girls highlighted the issues of the utmost importance to adolescent girls in the SDGs, and requested the First Lady to support these in future discussions on the SDGs. During a fantastic and truly youth-led event, complete with skits that had the First Lady in hysterics, the girls presented their memorandum.
Overwhelmed and emotional, the First Lady agreed to lobby influencers on behalf of the girls*, and work to ensure their issues are included in the SDGs.
The girls in Kenya, as well as Plan International-supported girl advocates in the Philippines, Brazil, and Pakistan, have decided that safety and gender-based violence is one of their biggest concerns impacting their lives daily. These issues have become central to Plan International’s recommendations and advocacy on the SDGs, particularly in recent recommendations on how to measure the progress of adolescent girls in the new framework*.
The girls, Plan International, the First Lady of Kenya, and now everyone who was in the room yesterday, understand that without addressing these issues, the SDGs will simply not deliver for over half the world’s population, and will fail to reach some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
It never ceases to amaze me how powerful the voices of young people can be – echoing through places and spaces that are often difficult to reach. It was clear to all yesterday that these brave, intelligent, hard-working girl advocates are destined for great things. Many adults in the room remarked that they were witnessing history, as Kenyan girls were being heard and having influence like they have never done before.
Where once they would have been locked out of discussions, these girls are now powerful agents of change, demonstrating to all in their actions, as well as their words, why girls’ rights really matter.
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