Girls Leading the Charge

04/17/2015 10:43 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015
Girls Leading the Charge

There is "girl power" at the UN this week. Activists from around the world have come to the Commission on Population and Development to discuss how reproductive health and rights contribute to sustainable development. Things are different this time: Girls and young women are no longer the subjects of discussion, they are bravely--and effectively--fighting for their own rights. While the halls of power are still filled with older men, young women are making their mark. In what was much more than a symbolic gesture, the Dutch asked their 21-year-old youth ambassador, Lotte Dijkstra, to give their opening remarks at the Commission. "I am here to speak on behalf of my government," she said. "Not despite my age but because of my age."

Young feminist activists are making the case for girls--to ensure they stay in school, don't marry and have children against their will, are able to earn a decent living, and can live productive and creative lives, free from abuse and violence. Initiatives like President Obama's Let Girls Learn aim to make this a reality. What is different now is that girls themselves are not satisfied with being the targets of these initiatives--they want to drive them.

Compared to just five years ago, young people are actively participating in and informing policymaking. This makes sense; there are more young people in the world today than ever before--1.8 billion between the ages of 10 and 24. As world leaders and policymakers debate the way forward on population and sustainable development, young people, particularly girls and young women, want to make sure their own future is a policy priority.

This shift is occurring way beyond the UN and global leadership levels. Three recent developments suggest a powerful, youthful tide within the women's movement. Earlier this week, a Kenyan court sentenced three men to prison for gang-raping a 16-year-old girl. This only happened after the "Justice for Liz" campaign, led by young Kenyan women, gave rise to national and international outrage. Liz (whose name was changed for anonymity) had identified the perpetrators after the brutal attack. Instead of arresting the men, the local police decided that having them cut the grass in front of the station was punishment enough. Only after mass protests by women and girls in Kenya and an online petition signed by nearly 2 million worldwide were the men brought to trial and prosecuted. This powerful, youthful brand of activism uses new tools, and thinks beyond borders.

In China, the five young female activists who had been detained by authorities in March for trying to start a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation were released on bail this week. A huge global outcry--both by local women activists in China and international advocates--led to their release. More activism will be required for the absurd charges against them to be dropped. Still, the message is getting across to men in power that you cannot suppress young women without consequence.

It's been one year since more than 200 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria. While the girls are still missing, widespread protest led by young women in Nigeria and around the world had significant repercussions on last month's national election in Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan was defeated by Muhammadu Buhari in part because of his inexplicable inaction and lack of concern about finding the Chibok girls. #BringBackOurGirls is now a global rallying cry. Girls used to count for very little in domestic and foreign policy--now they do.

While women in general, and young women in particular, are still grossly underrepresented at the highest levels of government, business, and civil society, their influence is growing through local and global activism. To be sure, we have a long way to go to achieve true gender equality. Yet as I work side by side with young feminist activists from all over the world, I am inspired, energized, and yes even optimistic about the future for which this new generation of young women is fighting so hard. We owe them our support.