NEW YORK — In many of the high-level meetings and events that take place in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, the people and groups being discussed are often not at the table. It was a stark absence as a new set of global goals were enshrined.
There were a few exceptions. An event this week hosted by the International Center for Research on Women and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) featured three girls making change on gender equality in their communities. It was not an instance where an NGO brought a group of children to show off NGO success. These girls are working with local groups and starting their own initiatives – all before the age of 20.
Elizabeth Williams, 19, Nigeria
Sexual health and rights advocate Elizabeth Williams immediately pointed out that the biography detailing her extensive activism was already out of date. The 19-year-old Nigerian has already worked with numerous groups to help inform and educate girls about their rights.
“As a young girl, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your community, you owe it to your state and you owe it to your country to make positive change,” she said.
The focus is on girls, but Williams makes the case for working with boys, too. At the center of everything is understanding the rights of every person, regardless of gender. She believes that recognizing those rights is essential to true equality.
“There is no gender equality if one has rights and the other does not have rights. The only way we can realize gender equality is when boys realize they have rights and girls realize they have rights, and both recognize each others’ rights.”
Jimena Asturias, 12, Guatemala
That is not a typo. Jimena Asturias is only 12 years old and a campaigner for girls in Guatemala. She began her work on educating youth about violence prevention and human rights when she was 8. Activism at an early age started with the lessons from her own parents.
“My parents were adolescent parents, and it took them a long time to succeed,” said Asturias. “I want to know how to help women and girls in my country succeed.”
It is the same thing that led her mother to reach out to young girls so they would not endure the same hardship. Asturias joined her mother and now works on her own to reach other children in her community of Jalapa and across Guatemala.
“We need to learn from each other in our community. We cannot only change our community, we can change Guatemala,” she said.
Teen pregnancy is a major issue in Guatemala. About half of all girls are married by 20 and nearly as many (44 percent) give birth by that time. Consistent birth control rates hover around 5 percent. The health and lifelong impact of early pregnancy are significant. Girls as young as 10 are becoming mothers – far too young.
Despite the overwhelming challenge, Asturias is optimistic. She knows her generation is vital to the future of Guatemala and will do what it takes to make sure they realize their great potential.
“Invest in us. Because we are not only the future, we are the present,” she said.
“And we deserve to be happy.”
Preslava Ivanova, 19, Bulgaria
Getting involved in reproductive rights and girls issues started at school for Preslava Ivanova. When a teacher told her and her classmates that HIV was spread my mosquitoes, Ivanova realized that a lack of information existed at all levels, not just among her peers.
She now works with fellow girls to educate one another on sexual and reproductive health. As a part of a peer-to-peer network, Ivanova and other girls train peer leaders to work in their communities.
“I, too, believe young people are the present and the future. I want to see changes not only in my country, but in the whole world,” she said.
That goes beyond working with girls. Ivanova helped campaign for a law to provide better protection for women and girls. That effort failed, but she said that a new effort will begin soon and she will participate.
Earlier in the panel discussion, Kate Gilmore of UNFPA spoke about the importance of young people to the organization’s mission. She argued that they should be central to achieving the sustainable development goals.
“No matter what our goals are, there is nothing we can do to change the fact that the future trajectory for sustainable development is the story of young people,” said Gilmore.
If she is right, these three activists are reason for hope that the most important generation is shaping a better world for them to live.