Give girls a voice and let them change their world

By Anita Tiessen 11 October 2016

Girl Guides clapping and cheering. Photo by: Gary Goh / CC BY-NC-ND

In 1909, a group of young women marched on a rally in Crystal Palace, London, calling to be part of the newly formed scout movement. These girls were bold; their actions were transformative.

Anything boys could do, girls could do too — and these girls believed they could do anything.

Today, girls globally still want to push boundaries. They want to make their voices heard, contribute to society and lead lives that can transform their communities. They don’t need people, experts or nongovernmental organizations to tell them what needs to be done. In fact, girls are the experts on their own needs and their lived realities — they just need to be given the opportunity, skills and support to make their voices heard.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, now more than ever is the time to shout about the importance and the potential of girls. But, really, it shouldn’t just be confined to one day. Girls’ rights and girls’ voices are important every day of the year.

Our organization, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, is empowering girls around the world to tackle the issues that matter to them. Our nonformal education approach — which relies on experiential, hands-on learning — helps to make complex topics accessible and fun for young people. Values-based approaches also equip girls and young women with the desire, the confidence and the skills to translate what they’ve learned into practical action in their communities.

By encouraging girls to work in small groups and using a mix of learning styles and activities such as role play, sketches and games, girls and young women can take ownership of their lives and develop leadership and skills. Small groups create a sense of belonging, providing a space where young people are able to listen, discuss what’s important and better support one another. They will then be able to take these skills and confidence gained to make a difference within their communities.

Taking the lead

There are 10 million Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 146 countries worldwide. From responding to natural disasters and challenging gender-based violence to educating girls on health issues, these young women are taking the lead and working to improve their communities for the better.

I’ve met many of these girls and they’ve shared heartening — and inspiring — stories about the projects they’ve set up with the skills taught at WAGGGS.

When hundreds of thousands migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea, with over 100,000 migrants or refugees arriving in Greece and Italy this year, Greek Girl Guides leader Olympia was determined not to be a bystander.

Olympia and her Girl Guides troop decided to step forward and respond to the crisis.

“I don’t want Greek society to see refugees as a threat,” she explained. “I want them to understand the hardship that refugees, especially girls, endure. That’s why Girl Guides groups, age 14 to 17, are going to the islands where refugees are living and distributing food and aid. We want to make them feel as safe and comfortable as possible.”

In Sri Lanka, Girl Guides are campaigning against gender-based violence, delivering educational workshops across the country and raising awareness in bus stations, on the streets and in the halls of Parliament.

Chamathya, 23, has been a Girl Guide since she was 8 years old. She’s experienced violence firsthand. “Girls face harassment on a daily basis while commuting on public transport,” she said. “It’s at risk of becoming normalized in my country. Whether verbal or physical, sexual harassment is a violation of women’s rights.”

Now, this inspiring young woman is educating others, changing minds and organizing young people to stop the violence in her country.

“I want to change this culture of silence. I want girls and women to realise they are allowed to have a voice, share their experiences and speak up for their rights,” said Chamathya.

Girl Guide leader Lucy lives in Malawi. Her aim is to educate girls about health issues. With 34 percent of adolescent girls in Malawi becoming pregnant before the age of 18, it’s an important issue that needs to be tackled.

“Talking about sex and menstruation can be tough for some girls. They can find it embarrassing, or because of the taboo nature of the subject, it may be something they know nothing about,” said Lucy. “Our projects aim to ensure adolescent girls are informed about and empowered to access health services that address sex education, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence for girls who are both in and out of school.”

A global movement

These are just a few examples from across our global movement and it’s incredible to see Girl Guides and Girl Scouts taking action on the issues that matter to them.

However, if we want to see girls really flourish, we have to do our part too. Just over one year ago, in September 2015, world leaders came together to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious agenda to tackle poverty, climate change and all forms of inequality by 2030. If we are to achieve these ambitious goals, we must recognize the power and potential of girls.

The SDGs will only ever be achieved if governments, businesses, communities and civil society invest in girls and women and give them the tools they need to lead and thrive.

At WAGGGS, we’re focused on ensuring girls and young women have the opportunity to learn in a way that works for the individual, no matter where they are from. If she wants to voice her opinion on an issue she cares about, she can do so with the knowledge that it will be heard and acknowledged, whether on a local, national or global level. Others need to do the same. Society needs to ensure girls are given the opportunity to learn in a way that works for them — it needs to be flexible. If decisions need to be made that will impact girls, then involve them and listen to what they have to say. Putting girls in the lead, giving them confidence and providing a space where their voices are heard and valued is key.

What’s clear to me is girls have the enthusiasm, passion and desire to change their communities for the better. It’s about time the world sat up and not only took notice, but gave girls the belief, support and tools to thrive. What they could achieve would be truly limitless.

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About the author

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Anita Tiessen

Anita Tiessen is chief executive officer for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the global movement for girls. Prior to this role, Anita was deputy executive director at UNICEF UK, responsible for the organization’s public affairs, programs and communications work. She led work to embed children’s rights in the U.K., including programs in schools, health settings and in local government for 14 years. Anita has also worked at Amnesty International’s global headquarters in London, as well as in government and journalism in Canada.


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