One thing I’ve learned through attending social good summits is that it always takes me days to sort through all the information, emotion and impact such an event brings. I’ve now attended three Social Good Summits along with the recent ONE Women and Girls AYA Summit, and I feel more empowered than ever before to raise my voice and promote change.
Last week’s AYA Summit in Washington DC was no different. Yet somehow this meeting was even more meaningful than the others because it was small, intimate and an emotional roller coaster of firsthand stories of women and girls around the world who have suffered and at the same time have persevered. These are the girls and women that we are fighting for and trying to offer our voice to the “voiceless” millions of them that are forced into early marriage, stolen into sex trafficking, denied an education or the right to control their fertility, and denied reaching their full potential in life.
There is a Chinese proverb that says that “women hold up half the sky“. It is the title of Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s stunning book “Half the Sky” that proves just what the world is missing by not including women. I believe that these women hold up even more.
While women and girls around the developing world continue to not have equal rights, status or opportunity, they do have an unleashed power. Many global leaders and non-profit organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ONE, and the United Nations Foundation, are seeing the immense, untapped value in elevating women and girls. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes economic sense and will make the world a better place.
We learned at the summit – through a variety of presenters ranging from leading humanitarians, to actresses, business leaders, award-wining journalists, doctors and women themselves – that girls and women can do a lot if given the opportunity. Furthermore, elevating the status of women and girls by providing them with economic and educational opportunities, is central to eliminating extreme poverty.
The conference began with an electrifying panel and conversation that included Nancy Kairo of World Vision and award-winning photographer and founder of Too Young Too Wed Stephanie Sinclair, that discussed why it is critical to focus on girls advocacy. I was glued to my seat as I viewed some of Stephanie’s haunting images and stories of the practice of child marriage and vowed I would never forget these girls.
Next we met Holly Gordon, Co-Founder and CEO of Girl Rising, a global campaign for girls’ education, and an Executive Producer of the Girl Rising film (a must-see!). Holly introduced us to Marquesha Babers , a homeless American teenager who found her voice through poetry, empowering herself by achieving dignity and hope. At the end of her presentation, Holly surprised the audience by establishing the Marquesha Babers Storytellers Scholarship for Marquesha and other homeless girls to continue their education. We were all in tears to see how someone’s life had just been changed right before our eyes.
Our keynote speaker was award-winning New York Times journalist, author and advocate for human rights, Nick Kristof, who talked about his newest book “A Path Appears” and inspired us all to keep fighting by using our voice as bloggers. He made us promise to become the best storytellers possible to inspire the world to care about these often forgotten or overlooked issues impacting women and girls.
We heard from Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Senator John McCain, who has dedicated her life to helping women and girls around the world, particularly in regards to trafficking. We learned about the importance of electricity in Africa and the provision of funding for global vaccines on behalf of the GAVI Alliance. Doctor Lance Plyler of Samaritan’s Purse gave a moving firsthand narrative of what it was like being on the ground in Liberia and caring for his colleges Doctor Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol who were diagnosed with Ebola. Actress and award-winning playwright Danai Gurira stunned us with a raw, brilliant live performance of one of her plays on girl soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the list goes on.
Throughout the day and a half summit, I was swept away by emotion, inspiration and a renewed passion that there is much we can do to make the world a better place. As one of 60 bloggers at the AYA Summit, collectively we have a reach of over 45 million and by using our voices we can help advocate for girls and women around the world. It is a powerful feeling.
I am going to conclude this post with the story of Saa* who we met at the end of the summit. A young, slight Nigerian girl of 18, Saa was brought up on stage wearing sunglasses and holding the arm of Nigerian Human Rights Attorney Emmanuel Ogebe of the Jubilee Campaign. The only information we were given about the next topic we were going to hear was that the panel was called “#WhereAreOurGirls”. As soon as Saa walked on stage I knew what I was seeing and could hardly believe my eyes. Saa, along with a very brave and courageous friend, were two of the almost 300 school girls abducted this past April by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. Saa told her story softly while holding back her tears, of how she and her friend escaped their abductors by jumping off the top of the truck that was taking them away. They ran through darkness in the forests of Nigeria until they finally found a farmer who risked his life to save them. It is a story that I will never forget and will haunt me forever.
There is much work that remains in our fight for women and girls around the world. I will never give up hope nor will I stop fighting for my sisters and daughters. Thank you ONE Women and Girls for opening my eyes, touching my heart and continuing to fuel my passion for my work.
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*Saa is not her real name. This name is used to protect her privacy.