Celebrating International Women's Day at the Lincoln School

by Because I am a Girl

Dounia here – the Youth Outreach and Marketing Coordinator at Plan International USA - and I’ve got a story to share with you. Just last week, I had the honor of serving as the keynote speaker at the Lincoln School’s celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD).

This was no ordinary event. Every year for the past eight years, high school students at the Lincoln School have designed their own day-long celebration, full of workshops and community-building activities. This year, the planning committee had pulled together an impressive line-up of artists, musicians, professors, consultants, aid workers…and me.

I had been invited to speak on behalf of the Because I Am a Girl initiative. It was a big day for the initiative – our microsite was about to launch! – and I was excited. Climbing the steps to Lincoln’s bright red doors, I decided that there was no better way to mark the occasion than sharing Plan’s work with these talented, ambitious young women.

We gathered in the auditorium for the day’s kick-off. Erin M. and Tess V., two high school seniors, were at the podium. They introduced the day’s theme - Voices: Heard and Unheard - with a powerful video. They had put together the movie themselves over the course of two months, finding time to edit it between their classes, hours of homework, and afterschool activities. They had even included photos of all the students in Lincoln’s Upper School in a stunning, rapid-fire montage. The other students murmured and giggled as they saw themselves on the big screen.

It was a tough act to follow. (I encourage you to watch it and “like” the video on YouTube right away, and stay tuned for more extraordinary work from these two young women.) I took to the stage and looked out at the 300+ girls in the audience. I wanted them – the girls at Lincoln – to use their voices.

I said: At its most fundamental, your voice is your right to express yourself. Using your voice means asserting that you and your ideas have value; that you are a person who can think and that your thoughts are worth listening to. Your voice is like your one vote in life’s big election of ideas. Don’t give that up so easily. And please don’t take it for granted.

I highlighted two additional videos: one from our colleagues at Plan UK called “Choices for Girls” and one created by youth working with Plan El Salvador, called “Girls vs. Boys.”

In the first video, three different girls – Jasmine from the UK, Sur from Thailand, and Bintou from Mali – tell their stories. Though their dreams are much the same, there’s a huge contrast in the opportunities available to them – and that, I pointed out, is where the Because I Am a Girl initiative steps in.

Because I Am a Girl has 17 projects that address the needs and rights of girls in 15 countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Nepal, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The total number of girls expected to be empowered by our initiative by 2016? 4 million.

But what do these projects look like? What does “empowerment” really mean?

“In Ethiopia,” I explained, “it means building girl-friendly schools with toilets and drinkable water, and creating a safe learning environment. In Vietnam, it means starting village savings and loans associations, so that women can invest their money and use their profits to start businesses or pay for their children’s education. In El Salvador, it means reducing violence against women and girls, creating safe spaces for victims, and advocating for tougher punishments for perpetrators.” In short, the projects are as different and diverse as the girls they serve.

But why do we focus on girls? After all, there are many, many voices around the world that aren’t listened to. They aren’t even heard. Most of these, though, are the voices of girls.

The statistics are heartbreaking. Girls are silenced and ignored in many ways. Yet there are just as many ways to take action with the Because I Am a Girl initiative. And there are girls taking action together, right here in the United States, right now.

There’s a girl out there who’s holding a concert to benefit Because I Am a Girl. There are girls who hosting movie showings and Slumber-Raisers, and soon there will be girls buying and wearing Because I Am a Girl t-shirts and Alex and Ani bracelets. And there’s much more coming.

One girl in the audience raised her hand. She asked what she could do beyond advocacy. After raising awareness and raising funds, what then?

I told her that if she wasn’t satisfied with what could be accomplished through these actions, then she had found a calling. She had to make it her business – her career, really – to take action in whatever ways were available to her to help girls.

And then I shared this reflection about my own work: When I got this job, I described it to people as “getting kids here to care about kids ‘over there.’” But young people - young people like you - already care. And when presented with the facts about girls, you really care. I totally overestimated the amount of cynicism I would face. My job, I now realize, is to give you the opportunity to make a difference. To provide you with ways to take action on the issues that affect you and young women like you.

Because I Am a Girl is just that opportunity. It is your big, bright pink chance to make a change in the lives of 4 million other girls. During the two workshops I led later, and for the rest of the day, I heard this message echo through the hallways and classrooms of the Lincoln School, in the voices and laughter of girls.

And as I exited those same red doors, I felt more hopeful than before. The event had been yet another example of how investing in girls will change our world.