On Friday, October 11, I had the honor of marking the second annual International Day of the Girl at the UN with my high school feminism class and 500 other guests. It was an event called Girls Speak Out, during which nine inspiring girl activists from around the world shared their stories and spoke with member states, UN agencies, and NGO’s about their work.
It was almost humorous looking at seven girls who were the center of attention, and who sat behind the large, imposing UN dais in office chairs, telling NGO workers and UN members how to improve worldwide issues. I couldn’t understand my partially negative reaction to this scene until one of the speakers helped me realize what I initially perceived as humorous was actually a troubling reaction to have.
A fourteen year old girl named Diana referred to herself as a “woman activist.” I realized quickly that she was in no way mistaken. She has seen and gone through so much since the age of six, that she is in many ways, no longer a child. It was then that I realized how inspiring it is to see these girls speaking at the UN; it also revealed how our system is set up against girls, forcing them to give up their childhood, not only through experiences such as sexual assault, trafficking, and early pregnancy, but through the responsibility they then have to take on as activists to let their issues be heard.
Diana is an undocumented immigrant who came to the US from Mexico with her father and brother by crossing a desert without food and water for three days. They lived in Florida for a while until her brother was deported. Her voice cracked with disappointment as she explained to the audience how she had just been accepted to a few amazing high schools that she was never able attend due to the move.
For adults, it’s difficult to throw away everything you’ve worked for; but for a child, one can only imagine the inner pain they feel towards hoping they will start something new and then have that opportunity thrown away. Never before did it occur to me how the story of a child dealing with an undocumented family member could affect a child’s future and well-being.
Just like Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a P.H.D, M.D, professor of clinical internal medicine said in relation to the emotional toll that children of undocumented immigrants suffer, “the single most important indicator of early onset mental illness and chronic health problems is the experience of childhood adversity,” a child around my age shouldn’t have to deal with the heavy burden of realizing that they may not be able to go to college because financial aid is not given to undocumented immigrants. They should not have to live with the constant fear of knowing that one day they could be sent back to a country they don’t know. In a country such as the U.S., which is filled with hope and opportunities, a child shouldn’t feel that they do not belong due to their immigration status.
It is argued that children who have family members who are undocumented suffer higher risks of poverty due to a lack of access to healthcare, financial aid, etc. These burdens that a child can start to feel by the age of fifteen, takes away their opportunity to have a healthy childhood. Though Diana is confident, and proud as ever, she is no different from the many girls around the world who are labelled “undocumented,” and who will feel the toll of their status throughout their lives.
As I sat in the audience listening to Diana and the other girls who told their stories, it was evident how much the world needs to learn about global girls issues. Every day I hear the phrase: “never leave a child behind.” But yet it still seems hard for the world to grasp the power of girls.
At the Girls Speak Out event, Lizzy, a girl advocate, explained that only about 1% of girls worldwide receive aid. The Girl Effect video below explains the importance of girls’ education and how educating girls can affect the whole world in positive ways. Anyone who sees this video whose job it is to change laws and protect people, should jump at the chance to improve the number of girls who attend school, change the laws that make it hard for girls to receive aid, and improve the equality between girls and boys.
But since change isn’t easy, girls like Diana must sacrifice their childhoods even further to let these issues be heard.
I hope the reader understands that I’m not saying girls should not speak out or that they should be protected from the realities of a “harsh society.” Instead, one shouldn’t forget the importance of having a childhood. The sacrifice that girls around the world are making today to have their issues heard should not be a sacrifice that every girl in the future should have to make. We need to thank these brave girls who are helping society for the better.