We all knew 2015 was going to be big for international development. For years the international community had been dissecting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and discussing what should come next.
A consensus emerged that when the MDGs expired, a new set of ambitious and inclusive goals should replace them. Building on the MDGs' shortcomings, many called for these goals to have human rights at their heart, and that all nations be accountable for ensuring everyone can live free from poverty and discrimination.
Among the voices clamouring to have their ideas included, a group often ignored in conversations affecting them stood out.
Girls' rights often ignored
Adolescent girls have been virtually invisible to governments, development organisations and even in their own communities. Not quite children, not yet women – adolescent girls are uniquely discriminated against, despite research proving their empowerment is vital to achieving sustainable development.
In late 2014, Plan International developed an empowering process to support 60 girls and young women in 4 countries to advocate for girls’ rights to be featured prominently in the post-MDG agenda.
As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emerged to replace the MDGs, these girls underwent advocacy training tailored to them and their mission. They identified priority issues, discussed which spaces and people they would target and agreed on campaign tactics. A year of powerful and inspiring youth advocacy was about to begin.
Sustainable development goals
I’ve spent years supporting youth advocacy and it astonishes me how many conversations take place in national and international policy about young people, literally without them. This is particularly true for girls.
Would it be unreasonable for intergovernmental bodies such as the UN to ensure young people are included in discussions about them? I asked myself this as I watched some of our girl advocates engaging for the first time at a key international event – the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Two girl advocates from Kenya used the novelty of their presence in a high-profile UN panel discussion to stage an intervention that brought the house down and scored them a precious few minutes alone with their country’s first lady.
A room full of adults were shocked as these girls secured a commitment from this highly influential individual to join them at an event in Kenya. And with that, the Kenyan girls’ advocacy launched into the stratosphere.
Power of girls' education
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, girl advocates held an event attended by their president and first lady, attracting national media coverage. Months later, 2 advocates from Pakistan, joined a fellow advocate from the Philippines at the World Education Forum (WEF) in Incheon, Korea. They spoke about the power of education and how it transforms girls’ lives.
Zara, 13, from Pakistan, told one audience, “There are so many socio-cultural norms creating a cycle of illiteracy and ignorance. Girls cannot continue studies for many reasons. I want to show that girls are not born to be degraded or mistreated. I am fighting for girls’ rights in my community, my nation. I am the voice of millions of girls who are out of school.”
WEF also gave the girls a taste of how challenging youth advocacy can be. Long days and adults still seemingly incapable of listening to young people in discussions on education. Despite this, the girls managed to gain an audience with their Education Ministers, creating a dialogue to build upon in their countries.
When the girls aren’t taking international stages by storm they continue to work in their communities. From classroom conversations to larger presentations, these inspiring advocates are getting their message out far and wide.
Young people have the ability to open doors. They have unique ideas that can be just the solution – or kick in the pants – those with power need.
Their work has had an immediate effect in their communities. They talk about positive changes in their lives and how other children, including boys, are approaching them to discover how they can be a part of this change.
So here we are – 2 weeks from the summit where the SDGs will be adopted by the world’s governments. Thanks to the efforts of these girls and thousands like them, the final draft of the SDGs has delivered a strong set of targets aimed at ending discrimination against girls and supporting their development.
The girls are already switching attention towards how these targets can be achieved. They are demanding to be part of that next conversation to make sure that in 2030, girls everywhere are valued, heard, educated, empowered, leading and thriving.