For the 225 girls registered at the Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington D.C earlier this month, excitement was around every corner. This has been their largest leadership summit, with Melissa Hillebrenner, Director of Girl Up announcing that Girl Up is now 1,000 clubs strong internationally and continues to grow in support.
This yearâ€™s theme was Stand Up. Speak Up. Rise Up., and was displayed throughout every speech by teen advisor, guest speaker and in every workshop. At last years summit, Girl Up lobbied to Members of Congress to get the Girls Count Act of 2014 signed into law, which was signed earlier this year, to ensure that every girl (and every boy) is registered at birth. This year, they made their way to Capitol Hill to express their concerns for girlâ€™s education around the world.
I was fortunate enough to sit with a group of Girl Up members from New Jersey, who spoke with representatives of Senator Bob Menendez (D) and Senator Cory Booker (D). It would be safe to say they were not afraid to lay out every concern they had on their minds in regards to girlâ€™s education and even tweeted Senator Cory Booker, who later responded to their tweets and asked if they would like to take a group photo with him.
â€œWe all have things that we are passionate about,â€ says Yassim, 19 from Gambia, who is now studying at Georgetown University when asked on how to advise girls to let their voices be heard. â€œAnd no matter what society you are in, it is important to just follow your passion, follow your voice, be strong and know that there are millions of people out there around the world, that you do not know at that moment, that care about what you are saying, that will help you, that will make your voice be heard all around the world.â€
I was fortunate to speak with more girls who were attending the summit and ask, why? Why Girl Up? The fact that many of these girls who make up their local clubs, raise funds and spread the Girl Up message, is they all have an ambition and passion to help girls just like themselves, but who have very different circumstances.
â€œItâ€™s just the environment I was raised up in,â€ says Sabah, 16 from Illinois, on reflecting why she chose to join Girl Up. â€œI was actually born and raised in Pakistan, and the environment and status of women is not really upheld as men are. So growing up, I have seen my mother being treated less than my dad. Since I was always into feminism and human rights, when my counselor suggested this to me, I was totally in for it.â€
Claire, 17, from Texas, has seen firsthand how girls are treated differently, fueling her ambition to make a difference. â€œI worked with a grassroots program at a school in Ecuador, where my dad is from, every summer kind of growing up. I would visit the school around where my dad lived when he was young, and I just started working with the girls specifically, just because I felt like they did not have as many opportunities for after school programs as the boys and ended up leading a health class the summer after my freshman year of high school in Ecuador. After doing that, I just really latched on to advocacy for girlâ€™s rights in developing countries and found Girl Up and came to the summit and fell in love with the campaign.â€
The energy for such a campaign from the young individuals I met at the summit left me wondering, even though they have helped change the lives of others, how has it changed theirs and impacted upon their lives?
Sarah, 21, from Egypt, who dedicates much of her time helping women in Egypt, set up small businesses to help provide a stable income says, â€œIt made me realize that there are so many people out there that are passionate about the same things that I am passionate about and itâ€™s kind of a universal support system.â€
Alexis, 17, from New Jersey says, â€œItâ€™s definitely made me much more aware of the issues that go on in places outside of the U.S. for girls who arenâ€™t as fortunate as I am.â€
Girl Up has had a tremendous amount of success in changing policies geared towards helping girls around the world. That work still continues through the many dedicated girls wanting to make a difference and empowering other girls to do the same.