Speech to the National Education Association

Eliana Stanislawski, president of the School Girls Unite high school chapter in Montgomery County, Maryland, presented this speech to the 170-member board of the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., just days before her 17th birthday and the first-ever UN International Day of the Girl.

Fill in the blank: Girls’ rights are important to me because *blank*. This sounds like a simple question, but it’s more difficult than it seems. We all want to give some vague answer like “girls deserve rights too,” which is true, but this is not enough. We need to remember more specifically why girls’ rights are important, or else it will slip from our minds. I’m going to ask that you please think about this blank.  I will come back to this question at the end.

I will be seventeen years old in four days. In the birth lottery, I drew the straw that landed me in a Montgomery County family, with access to one of the best public school systems in the nation. I’m standing before you today because I was blessed enough to have been invested in.

I am here representing the Day of the Girl Campaign, an initiative that in this country is led by School Girls Unite, an organization which advocates for the UN Millennium Development Goals, specifically gender equality, universal basic education, child marriage prevention and other human rights issues. The goal of the Day of the Girl is to highlight, celebrate, discuss, and advance girls’ lives and opportunities across the globe.

On December 19, 2011 the United Nations officially declared October 11 the International Day of the Girl. There are Day of the Girl campaigns going on in nearly 100 other countries. This is amazing, but still, I know what you’re thinking, because when the Day of the Girl idea was first proposed to me I had the same thought: So, it’s a commemorative day. So what?

The International Day of the Girl isn’t just about being aware of issues. Learning about problems does not solve them, there has to be value in that knowledge that incites action. In the US campaign we began a Proclamation Project, which encourages girls across the country to seek Day of the Girl proclamations from their local and state governments. In doing this, girls are not only educated on the issues plaguing women and girls worldwide, but they also come to understand the structure of their government and become empowered through taking action.

The next question that comes to mind is this: why a day for just girls? Don’t we live in a world where everyone is relatively equal now? And my response to that is “No. We don’t.” By 2015, girls will make up 64% of the world’s illiterate adult population, and worldwide, only 30% of girls are enrolled in secondary school.

When girls reach puberty they are constantly in danger. They are children in women’s bodies, and yet one-in-seven girls in developing counties is married before age 18. Girls as young as 11 are sold into sex trafficking with 1.2 million children being trafficked every year, in almost every country including the U.S.

As educators you are all responsible for shaping how students are going to perceive the world. The empowerment of girls is not just a feminist agenda; it is vital to ensure economic stability and to alleviate poverty. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn wrote in their book Half the Sky that when feminism “is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed.” As such influential members of the education community, passion for girls’ equity is something that the NEA has always championed. The 40-year success of Title IX is just one example.

And now, back to my initial question. Why are girls’ rights important to you? Is it because a nine-year-old girl should not be married into sex slavery for a man three to four times her age? Is it because if girls aren’t in school, all of these other dangers become exponentially more pressing?

Girls face inequality in nearly every aspect of our lives, and what affects us locally affects us internationally. Most girls in our world were not born into societies that even value the education of girls. I’m lucky to be here, but that’s all I am. I’m lucky. I want every girl to be as lucky as I have been, and to have the opportunity to lead a safe, fulfilled life. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

I hope you will bring the Proclamation Project back to your schools and share it with your students, and also encourage them to participate in our livestream virtual summit at our partner site dayofthegirlsummit.com. Information is listed on the cards you received earlier. Please tweet your reason why girls’ rights are important to you with the #DayoftheGirl, “like” us on facebook, and continue to spread the word about October 11.

Thank you.

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