Being a youth advocate for gender equality has been quite a journey—difficult and rewarding in equal parts.
In 2015, I traveled around the country to take on leadership opportunities with organizations I believed in. At the 2016 United Nations Summer Youth Assembly, I shared the findings of my George Washington University Online High School capstone project on sustainable development and its connections to the well-being of adolescent girls. In December, I was named a champion of UN Women’s Empower Women campaign.
But all of that came after many setbacks and disappointments. I have sat in Capitol Hill offices with disinterested U.S. Congressmen and their staff who searched anxiously for the clock as I recited a well-practiced monologue for the fifth time that day. I have walked into the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters feeling inadequate. I, and many other young advocates, have felt the harsh sting of being the loudest voice in a room where no one seems to be listening.
In 2013, I moved to Doha, Qatar—a small Middle Eastern country that juts into the lucent waters of the Persian Gulf. More Qatari women are enrolled in institutions of higher education than men, which was an eye-opening fact. Qatari women can also vote in elections and run for public offices. They are driving forces in business, education, the art world, and numerous other sectors. But there are still significant socioeconomic obstacles that women in Qatar face: discrimination, potential jail time for unwed pregnancy, domestic violence and sexual harassment among them. Despite this, the Qatari women I befriended were steadfast in their wish to educate the next generation on why women’s empowerment is important—a message that I internalized.
My time in Qatar piqued my interest in gender equality. In efforts to learn more, I found out that adolescent girls in developing countries are often excluded from talks regarding sexism and sex discrimination, adding to the marginalization they already face as one of the world’s most hard-to-reach demographics. There are no seats at any tables for the girls whose rights are the topic du jour. Organizations host large galas centered on empowering adolescent girls at an event where nary a person under 25 is present. International organizations hold forums on young people with no young people in the room. Experts draw conclusions abut how best to support girls based entirely on data—without consulting those with first-hand experiences.
When adolescent girls are a topic of discussion, they are somehow still missing from the conversation. The solution to this problem is easy: girl-driven and girl-operated efforts to end inequality.
Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign, is a good example. The campaign puts the power to create change in the hands of the girls who need it. My friends and I launched Qatar’s first branch of Girl Up in 2014 with a focus on providing a platform to talk about gender equality and fundraising for the education of adolescent girls in developing countries. In 2015, I joined the campaign’s Teen Advisory Board. Since I completed my senior year of high school at George Washington University Online High School, I was able to travel around the country and take on large leadership roles with organizations I believed in. Attending high school online also allowed me to insert my personal interests into my education.
I was recently given the opportunity to spend seven awe-inspiring and empowering days with the Asociación de Mujeres Organizadas de Biolley (ASOMOBI) in Costa Rica through Long Island University Global. ASOMOBI processes and sells locally made coffee and promotes eco-tourism, women’s financial stability and the reduction of socioeconomic inequalities in rural areas. Never had I seen a community filled with such motivated, self-starting women who have created a platform to better their economic situation. They were a true testament to the importance of women’s financial empowerment, and my time with Empower Women so far has showed me that without the full participation of women in the global economy, our world suffers tremendously.
The International Labor Organization states that the existing employment gap between men and women results in a global loss of $1.3 trillion annually. According to the World Bank, nearly 90 percent of 143 economies have been found to have at least one legal difference restricting women’s economic opportunities—whether it be specific laws that state women cannot perform certain jobs or laws that give power to husbands to dictate what their wives do. Today’s financially-empowered women raise tomorrow’s financially-empowered youth. It is essential qualified women around the world have the same legal access to gainful employment and meaningful work as the men.
It took me a while to connect the dots and realize that my journey has been shaped by the women I have met in my travels. I have learned so much from the girls and women from different backgrounds than my own. Whether it be education, financial empowerment or issues of gender discrimination, I am just now realizing how much work it takes is to ensure our planet is more equitable in the future.
However, we must take comfort in recognizing the strength of our sisters, mothers, aunts and friends—especially in such divisive times.
It is up to us to raise our voices loudly and make it clear that gender equality is everyone’s priority and we won’t stop fighting. We will make those disinterested members of Congress care. We will feel powerful walking down the hallways of the U.N.
The world will listen.
Sarah Hesterman is a student at Long Island University Global and a graduate of George Washington University Online High School. She is an advocate for gender equality and sustainable development who has worked in the U.S. and the Middle East for the past three years. She has supported the advancement of women and girls on Capitol Hill, at the headquarters of the UN, and at the White House. She has lobbied members of Congress for bills that enhance the welfare of adolescent girls and refugees, has represented the U.S. twice at the United Nations Youth Assembly and has worked with wonderful organizations like UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, the Malala Fund, Under One Sky, Girl Effect, RESULTS and Global Citizen.