Today is International Day of the Girl, and what better day than today to reflect on what it means to be a girl.
It’s the perfect day to think about gender, equality, and opportunity – and how it all fits into what what we do at One Girl.
Growing up as the youngest and only girl in my family, with two older brothers, I was never made to feel inadequate or incapable of doing and becoming whatever I desired.
In fact, when I was little all I wanted to do was EVERYTHING my brothers did.
Gender did not define who I was then, and to this day, it continues to play no part in the choices and opportunities I have before me today. It’s never stopped me from doing anything I’ve wanted to do – or achieve. It didn’t decide, or define my future.
But education did.
It is through these experiences that I truly believe every girl on the planet has the right to an education. I am so excited to be part of One Girl’s Programs team, helping to make that a reality for thousands of girls across Sierra Leone- and one day, even a million girls.
As the Programs Co-ordinator for our Sierra Leone programs, I get to spend my days managing relationships with our amazing program partners, making sure our programs are running without a hitch, and- most importantly- having an immense impact for the girls and young women we work with and their communities.
One of the favourite parts of my job is getting to see, through our programs, how we have put our belief – that EVERY girl has the right to an education – into action, especially by focusing primarily on educating the most vulnerable girls and women across Sierra Leone and Uganda.
To have the greatest long-term impact, it is so important that we work with community members in increasing awareness and understanding that it is just as important to send girls to school alongside their male peers, in order for our programs to be sustainable and supported by the communities we work with.
Change isn’t possible unless we have full community support – so they can start tackling beliefs which make girls less valued, or limit their potential. Challenging such beliefs is difficult work – but it is happening.
A few months ago I was lucky enough to be able to see for myself the results of this work on a Monitoring and Evaluation trip to Sierra Leone and Uganda.
Our first stop was Sierra Leone, and travelling through the country – across the capital city, Freetown, and in the rural villages- we were able to see firsthand how these messages are being received. It was an incredible and overwhelming experience, full of extreme highs and unexpected lows.
Throughout our trip we were confronted with the stark reality of gender inequality – ideas and notions often deeply rooted in history, culture, and even religion – which can be seen in so many parts of the world. Seeing this reality for myself was jarring – because it was such a polar opposite to MY experience of being female. And it reminded me of how much more work there is to be done. Of how much progress we still need to make.
When visiting communities, we often found that men would speak on behalf of the women and girls, whose voices were the ones we really wanted to hear. So many times we’d sit down to hear the girls’ stories, only to have men in positions of authority – teachers, principals, Chiefs and elders – try to speak for them. We’d have to ask them to stop so that we could hear and learn from the girls themselves – who were of course perfectly capable of sharing their own thoughts and stories.
During some community meetings in rural villages, it would be the (male) Chiefs and elders running the meeting, and generally only male community members who were asked to speak up and contribute. Women (if they were even mentioned at all) would not be named, like the males were, but only introduced by their status in relation to others: mother, teacher, carer.
Despite years of studying and working in International Development, these situations were still eye-opening. I’d feel a sense of deep unease at witnessing these moments of inequality, because they truly highlighted the challenging social and cultural context we work in – where women are NOT seen as the leaders and drivers of change in their community.
These cultural understandings of gender are deeply rooted and can’t be changed overnight. But they ARE changing. And I’m so proud to say our programs are playing a role in that.
By working with these communities through our programs, we can help shift this thinking – and small changes can become big changes. We know that bringing boys and men along on the journey is crucial in the fight for gender equality. That’s what I love about our Business Brains program, which creates an environment where girls and boys are learning crucial livelihood and health skills alongside each other as equals.
I was lucky enough to sit in and observe one of the Business Brains classes in a rural school, and was so excited to see both boys and girls learning about the important (and often taboo) subject of Menstruation. They were being taught by an amazing Peer Educator, Iye – she herself is a teenage girl who has been trained by our partner, Restless Development and empowered to teach these topics throughout her community . It was incredible to see her facilitating the discussion, allowing both boys and girls to speak up, ask questions, and learn together.
I know how privileged I am to have been born a girl in a country like Australia.
I’m even more aware of that privilege now, having had a first-hand glimpse at what it’s like in other parts of the world – where being a girl can determine your future. Where it can mean you will be looked down upon, or given fewer opportunities. Where being a girl might mean you are denied an education.
I’m even more determined now to change that reality for the girls and women we work with.
And so today, on International Day of the Girl, I have an opportunity to do something with that privilege. Which is to raise my voice and stand up for the rights of girls everywhere. And I’d love you to join me!