Have you ever been quizzed on a difficult topic by a complete stranger? Last week, on my journey home from Girl Summit, a young guy serving coffee on the train said, "I've heard a lot about that event you've been at and can see how important it is, but here's the thing ... I still don't really know what FGM is." He listened intently as I explained that 10,000 girls under the age of 15 in the UK are survivors of female genital cutting. He questioned why a woman who had been cut would let her own daughter suffer the same fate and so we talked about societal pressures on women and girls. This small exchange was the cherry on top of a motivating few days at the world's first girls' rights summit in London. However, it also indicates that the majority of people are still unaware of how widespread harmful traditional practices are, or what they can do to help end practices like FGM and child marriage. Without more advocacy, awareness raising and engaging youth in the fight we cannot make the world a safer place for women and girls.
On 22 July at the Girl Summit several hundred million pounds were committed to tackling female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage and a staggering 900 million people have pledged their support online. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum and keep the global focus on ending FGM and child marriage. Here's how:
Call FGM & child marriage what they really are: child abuse, violation of girls' human rights & manifestations of gender inequality
FGM and child marriage are both forms of child abuse, and gross violations of girls' basic human rights. One involves the painful cutting of girls' genitals and the latter denies children (mostly girls) basic human rights when married off before 18. Let's not ignore the word girl -- these issues are two pieces of a much bigger global gender equality jigsaw. Eradicating FGM and child marriage requires elevating the status of girls in societies and ensuring that their rights and lives are valued as equal to those of boys.
I've found that young people, like the friendly train barista, are often very frank with expressing their thoughts ... We need to ensure their voices are heard and encourage everyone to talk openly about the consequences of harmful traditions and value of girls.
Let young people lead
The real stars of Girl Summit were the YouthForChange panel -- 22 young people from across the world who are incredibly passionate about girls' rights. They use clear, heartfelt words, multimedia and storytelling to get their message across and it's very effective.
YouthForChange are a perfect example of why "bottom-up" solutions are just as important as grand commitments made by world leaders. Their recent survey shows that 88 percent of young people believe they have the power to lead change at a community level, but 52 percent feel that power is limited. Instead of waiting for funding to trickle down from governments to communities, we should act quickly to support and empower young people to speak out about and stand up against FGM and child marriage.
Say what you think, not what you think you should say
It's time we stop tiptoeing around FGM and child marriage. Anyone who plays the "culture" or "tradition" card is defending child abuse, and tradition is no justification for carrying on harmful practices that violate the basic rights, health and well-being of girls. As 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai said at the Girl Summit, "We should not be followers of traditions that go against human rights. Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. We human beings make traditions and we can change traditions."
We can learn from the positive approach of YouthForChange, who invite families and communities to retain the best parts of their culture but leave the harm behind. "We want to carry on traditions that respect people's human rights and encourage practising communities to see why FGM & child marriage is wrong and to stop." says 16-year-old June Eric-Udorie (also a blogger for Girls' Globe) of YouthForChange. "I think it's only when we realize that we shouldn't point at people and tell them their culture is wrong, rather get them to see why it's wrong and it's child abuse, then we will be one step closer to ending both practices," June continues.
Girl Summit's five minutes of fame may be up, but the possibilities for girls to speak up and inspire a whole generation are limitless -- and we cannot end here. Girls can't fight customary abuse alone and change will not happen overnight. Are you one of those 900 million people who signed the Girl Summit pledge? Please don't leave it at that. Keep talking and learning about FGM and child marriage. Follow up with your government to make sure the money pledged reaches the people and organizations that need it the most.
Do you have any ideas on how to keep the Girl Summit conversation going? Leave a comment below or Tweet your thoughts to @GirlsGlobe.