As a 16-year-old who isn’t 90 pounds soaking wet, I already feel small on my hometown city streets in Los Angeles. But as I clutched that sleek black microphone, preparing to pose a question at an “Anti-Trafficking in Southeast Asia” panel, in a packed conference room at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, I felt more miniscule than I ever had in my life.
“Yes, let’s hear from the very young lady,” the moderator announced, gesturing to where I sat, frozen on the spot. Although embroidered with a smile, the words seemed to sarcastically infer, “Let’s hear what this tiny, tiny girl has to tell us.”
Since I’ve never been one to conform to stereotypes, I felt a deep desire for my voice to be heard, no matter my age. This was the Commission on the Status of Women, organized by the United Nations to empower women. It looked like the time had arrived for me to be empowered.
I sat up straighter. My hand stilled. I took a deep breath — determined for my voice of youth to be heard — and asked my question:
“Do you believe that the recent high demand for sexual exploitation isn’t only out of a hedonistic need for pleasure but also to satisfy a patriarchal standard that requires men to be dominant oppressors? If so, how can we challenge this biased mindset during deleterious natural disasters [when women are most vulnerable]?”
Silence followed, which was soon ruptured by loud applause. A panelist answered my question with care, replying that she believed it was indeed both and that men’s masculinity in the area has been defined by a need to oppress. After the panel I received a lot of support and praise, which quickly vanquished all the doubt I had because of my age and size.
From then on, I spoke at every panel that I attended. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) had reached its goal of empowering women by beginning with one afro-headed, stick-skinny girl. As a young woman, it is nearly impossible to not feel empowered at the CSW, held in March each year, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Delegates, ambassadors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) flock to address solutions to end gender disparity.
It was hard to believe that people from all over the globe could unite with such dedication for one universal goal: female advancement. But yes, you better believe they can.
The United Nations statistics on the Millennium Development Goals have called for a major push from all nations to support gender equality. Although we have gone far, the world must go further. Due to the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, the world is currently being reminded, in a tragic way, of the nightmarish obstacles facing young women around the world. Even without the horrors of terrorism, there is much work to be done to protect everyone’s right to education.
Based on the United Nations Development Programme statistics, only two countries have achieved equal education for boys and girls on all levels of education. Adolescent girls are often left out of the agenda for development—123 million youth aged 15 to 24 lack basic reading and writing skills, with 61 percent of them being female. With 71 million young people receiving no post-primary education, the fight continues.
I had the pleasure of hearing Kate Lapin, Regional Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) propose some answers. She mentioned that the movement for equality in our world and schools requires a greater “effort to engage civil society,” and a rearrangement of our global agenda for the redistribution of opportunities and resources between men and women. Lapin also said, “Governments must be prepared for civil society action,” and that if voice and action can’t “be taken on the UN floor,” then we will find another stage.
Being a single individual at 5’2” (oh, alright 5’11/2”), when hearing monstrous numbers regarding lack of education around the world, it is quite easy to feel powerless. Yet meeting and discussing women’s rights with ambassadors, representatives and stakeholders has shown me the undeniable force building behind the movement for girls’ education.
As the storm is building for change in education, it is important for all of us to find our other stages, or ways to get involved, no matter how small the action.
I recently founded One Pen One Page, which promotes both global education—by encouraging supporters to contact their leaders through letters to form a Security Council Resolution for quality education—and education in urban public schools in the United States — through fundraising, poetry workshops, and leadership development.
My goal with One Pen One Page is to help engage youth in civil society to share their own solutions on stages that they build and advocate for not just equal education but also innovative education that creates leaders to deal with a world that is riddled with problems. I hope to start a movement to give young people the resources they need to become their own advocates.
Each of us can find our own way to fight for universal education. The truth is, no matter your gender, age, or race, it is easy to get involved—just find a stage, a place to get your voice heard, and “make it rain!”
I’ve always been frightened by thunder, but as I work as a youth advocate for the human right to education, especially for girls, the global education movement is one storm that, for once, I want to be in the eye of the storm.