The following post is an excerpt from STAND UP!, which came out today. You can purchase the book on Amazon. Three GLI students are spotlighted in the book, and we’ll be posting their stories this week to honor their work.
Every story in STAND UP! !: 75 Young Activists Who Rock the World, And How You Can, Too! is a launching pad for lessons and discussions on many topics—bullying, the arts, equality, disabilities, empowerment, family, environment, peer pressure, community service, education, friendship, leadership, race relations, faith, diseases and other medical issues, poverty, cultural understanding, healthy eating and living, animal welfare, drugs, military issues, social entrepreneurship, and so much more.
The free download, companion eBook STAND UP! DISCUSSION GUIDE is meant to be a starting point for exploring these issues and causes in the classroom, in the community, at home and anywhere else teachers, students, parents, book clubs, advocates, activists and the simply curious may be gathered. Like the stories themselves, the goal of this guide is to use the discussion questions as gateways to debate and exchanges that will encourage participants to further expand their knowledge, share experiences, open minds, take action, inspire change and bring people closer together.
by Isabella Gelfand
The din of applause was almost drowned out by the pounding of my heart. As I stepped up to the podium with sweaty palms, the applause died out, signaling that the audience was ready for me to speak. I had just been introduced as the youngest feminist in the banquet hall. I was 14. As I stood, knees shaking, at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s “Women, Money, Power” Forum being streamed on C-SPAN from Washington D.C., I couldn’t keep from asking myself, How did I get here?
I remembered when my mother handed me the list of clubs offered at my new middle school. I was almost 12 years old and would be entering the sixth grade.
I skimmed the list until something caught my attention: Girls Learn International (GLI), an organization that works to end poverty through girls’ education. I learned that the chapter at my school would be communicating with girls at a partner school in Afghanistan. That sparked my interest. The opportunity to discover a world outside my town was exciting!
By exchanging projects with girls at our partner school—Abdullah Bin Omar School, located in an area where the Taliban had denied girls access to an education in Afghanistan—I learned how much these girls value their education. For example, in one letter our school received, an Afghanistan student wrote, “My goal is to be a useful individual for my people. It takes a long time to come to school, but it is a road I love to take.”
GLI chapters focus on human rights and human rights violations worldwide. Because of gender inequality, millions of girls are being denied access to education and are vulnerable to gender-based violence. I learned that the best investment for the future of our world is to unlock the potential of girls whose voices have been silenced and whose rights have been stolen. When a girl is educated, she is empowered to make her own decisions and stop the cycle of poverty.
At a workshop at my school, I learned the Taliban has a list of laws that deprive girls of everyday freedoms. When a girl breaks just one of these laws, she is punished with public beatings, shootings, stoning or amputation of limbs. During one workshop activity, each club member began with 10 Hershey’s Kisses, representing basic freedoms like laughing, showing your face in public, and attending school, work or even a doctor’s appointment. We then had to throw away one Kiss for each Taliban law we had broken that day. When we lost a Kiss, it symbolized that not only were our rights stolen, but that under the Taliban, we also might have been killed. We weren’t even halfway through the list of laws when everyone’s Hershey’s Kisses were gone. The thought of living bound in chains of oppression like that was unimaginable to me. I am happy to share that while I was in middle school, we raised $1,000 for our partner school at the end of each year so the students there would have a chance for a brighter future.
In eighth grade, I was elected president of my GLI chapter, was a member of the New York Area Junior Board and was selected as one of GLI’s student delegates to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. The CSW is where women’s issues are discussed among world leaders and policies related to women and girls are created. I had the opportunity to work with a group of girls from around the world to draft the 2012 Girls’ Statement, highlighting heartbreaking difficulties rural girls face daily.
The CSW was the most incredible experience of my life. I’ve always lived in an upper-middle class, mostly-white suburban town, sheltered from the horrific violations against girls around the world. All of a sudden, the issues I studied in GLI were real and personal. They were embodied by the incredibly courageous girls I met, like Thando from the Zulu tribe in South Africa, who told me that in her village, polygamy—which is a husband who has more than one wife—was common and how damaging the practice was to women. Thando’s grandfather was told by others that educating his granddaughter was a waste of money.
These issues impact girls like Agatha from Uganda, who described how, in her community, abortion is punishable by death. These issues impact thousands of young girls who are bought and sold as sex slaves, even here in the United States. I learned from a panelist how human trafficking brainwashes its victims by beating, drugging and threatening them into cooperation. When they can no longer be sold, they are disposed of. Hearing this, I could barely speak—it broke my heart. It outraged me that even in my own country, girls’ childhoods and futures are being stolen, leaving them with scars that brand their souls forever.
These experiences made me realize how lucky I was to be born into a family that loved me and kept me safe. But that was just the luck of the draw. By the same luck, I could have been born elsewhere, ending up in a child marriage or sold as a sex slave. The girls born in communities where they are not valued and fall victim to abuse are trapped by circumstances, not by any fault of their own.
At the CSW, I was moved by the fact that the women affected by these issues are not viewing themselves as victims—they are survivors who are speaking up, standing up and fighting for a better tomorrow. I wanted others to hear the heartbreaking, yet inspiring stories of the courageous people I’d met. So I wrote a one-woman play, Trumpet Calls, focusing on girls’ rights around the world and my personal experience with GLI. Each character in my play is a woman whom I have either interviewed or whose speeches moved me to action. I performed a portion of Trumpet Calls at my school, and drew tears and a standing ovation from the audience. That night I was on top of the world, not because I performed well, but because the issues that affect so many innocent girls were being realized by the people in that room. I knew that the audience wasn’t really applauding me—they were applauding the cause. That is when I understood the power of awareness.
So as I stepped up to the podium at the “Women, Money, Power” Forum, I could feel the presence of each girl who touched my heart and moved me to action. As I began to share the story of my sisters at Abdullah Bin Omar School in Afghanistan, I reflected on how I had gotten there and I realized that this is where I wanted to be, standing up and speaking out until no more children are deprived an education.
Girls’ education cannot be put on the back burner anymore. It’s time for us to choose a better tomorrow. In order for women to gain the freedoms they deserve, it is critical for all to be on board. The equalization of the sexes cannot be labeled as a women’s issue. It requires the involvement of every nation and every individual.
Isabella is an active member of the Girls Learn International chapter at her school.