Half the world’s population is under the age of 25. Young women have always been leaders in their families, managing households and caring for their family members. Increasingly, young women are taking on leadership roles in the private and public sector. But despite their extraordinary potential, girls and women remain invisible in much of the world. In developing countries, a girl is more likely to be uneducated, a child bride, or exposed to HIV/AIDS than to be an educated professional. Only $.02 of every development aid dollar is directed to girls.
In the past few years, as the Outreach Manager at Women Deliver, I’ve had the great opportunity to see firsthand the power of young women.
At the Women Deliver 2010 conference, we launched the “100 Young Leaders” program to educate and strengthen advocacy skills of young women and men. The 100 Young Leaders are selected from a pool of 6,000 scholarship applicants and represent 59 different countries, in every region across the globe. What started as a one-day workshop has grown into a community of young, passionate advocates who are dedicated to improving the health and well-being of girls and women around the world.
We must approach this issue with intergenerational respect and open communication to ensure that young women can reach their potential. Young people, when given a voice, can drive change. Their perspective, their experiences, and their willingness to ask tough questions offer the greatest hope for challenging the social norms and decades-old policies that harm girls and women. When young people are engaged, informed, and empowered, they can advocate for themselves and the need to invest in solutions that save the lives of girls and women.
Saba Ismail is one of the Women Deliver 100 Young Global Leaders. She is a powerful testimony to the ability of youth to push boundaries. In her home country, Pakistan, it is considered taboo to talk about sexual and reproductive health, sexuality, and contraception. Saba is working to change these norms and raise awareness among young women through the “Sahailee Hotline,” which means “female friend” in Urdu. The hotline provides information about contraception, postpartum hemorrhage, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Yunuén Flores, another Women Deliver 100 Young Leader, is the Gender Program Director at Espolea, A.C., an organization in Mexico City that works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people. At only 25-years-old, Yunuén is combating a culture she calls, “Patriarchal, machista, religious, and full of taboos.” Whether she’s dressing up as a condom (yep, she’s done that!) or handing out contraceptives, Yunuén educates her peers on how to practice safe sex and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Young leader Hasinihaja Tsiaro Barijaona Raharison lives in Madagascar, where 28 percent of 15 to 19 year olds have already given birth. Tsiaro works to ensure that young people are educated and empowered to talk openly about sex and contraception. Through counseling and outreach, she has educated her peers, healthcare workers, and even army leaders on the importance of women’s rights.
In the last year and a half, the Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders have exceeded our expectations in their advocacy efforts. They produced blogs for the Women Deliver website to bring a youth perspective to World Contraception Day, spoke out at international and national events for maternal health, organized national coalitions of youth advocates and activists, and wrote op-eds for their local newspapers and radio stations. At the Women Deliver conference in 2013, we plan to pass the baton and begin working with the next class of Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders. (If you’re under 30, you can apply for a scholarship now!)
It’s clear that when young women and girls are healthy, educated, and empowered citizens, they can and will break the cycle of poverty for their families, communities, and nations. Let’s join together to celebrate girls and women every day by making their health and empowerment a top global priority.