This week in September 1995 I was wide awake in the middle of the night after spending 22 days in Beijing and Huairou, China. On top of jet lag and physical exhaustion, my mind and emotions were still reeling from bringing 13 USA girls ages 10 to 16 to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Six women and one man completed our group of 21.
The girls presented a Girls Agenda at the NGO Forum and reported on their experiences for New Moon magazine. Four members of New Moon’s Girls Editorial Board had heard about the conference when interviewing Angela Davis in 1994.
When asked which life experiences had influenced her to work for women’s rights, Davis told them about being inspired by the women from all over the world who she met in Nairobi at the UN Third World Conference on Women in 1985. Then she said, “There’s another Women’s Conference next year in China. Are you going?”
The girls looked at me and asked, “Are we?”
That question launched a whirlwind education about the conference and how to attend. The first time I called a UN office in New York to ask about this I explained we had a group of girls who wanted to participate in the NGO Forum and report on the Conference attended by official governmental delegations.
The woman on the phone was surprised I used the word girls, “Don’t you mean young women?” “No, I mean girls, ages 8 to 14.” She responded, “You can’t bring children. We won’t have any childcare or special activities for them.” I said, “They don’t want special activities. They want to participate in the NGO Forum.”
For the first time at a UN World Conference on Women, girls’ issues were getting deep attention. We wanted girls to be there and speak on their own behalf, bringing their knowledge and perspective as girls to the issues. As the girls said, “Girls’ needs aren’t always the same as those of women.”
This was surprising, to say the least, to the UN office that was organizing the conference. When the girls on our Editorial Board heard that the UN thought girls shouldn’t be at the conference they got angry. Now they really wanted to be there to speak up for girls, and they wanted to bring the voices of other girls with them!
Seventeen months later, six girl editors and seven other girls from the USA arrived in Beijing after 18 hours of travel. We’d raised $30,000 by selling prints, t-shirts, pins and cards with the message Listen To Girls and the beautiful image of three girls painted by Alison Aune-Hinkel that’s at the top of this post.
They presented and distributed the Girls Agenda they had put together with global goals from girls about girls’ needs. They spoke on workshop panels, made speeches, worked with other girls and young women to recommend changes to the draft Platform for Action, and reported on the governmental conference.
After getting up at 4 a.m., they had nearly front row seats for Hillary Clinton’s famous “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech.
They learned about horrendous inequity of girls denied food, medicine and basic education just because they are girls. They heard about girls being forced into child marriage, prostitution, genital mutilation, child labor. They learned about the terrible toll ethnic strife and wars take on girls. All this was scary and made a deep impression on them.
But when they wrote and spoke about the forum and conference during the next year, they zeroed in on their feeling of connection with women and girls globally as the most important part of the experience. Even though everyone they met led very different lives, all wanted passionately to improve the lives of girls and women around the world.
As Sarah Vokes wrote in New Moon, “I have always known that the feminist movement was a global cause. I am not only fighting for my rights or for girls in the US. I am also fighting for the rights of girls around the world.”
These girls who went to the UN 4th World Conference on Women are now 30 to 37 years old. And those three weeks in China working on girls’ issues are long past. But the effects of what they did are still clear in their lives and their continuing commitment to girls’ and women’s right worldwide.
The more far-reaching effects of what they did in Huairou and Beijing, along with only 400 other girls, out of 40,000 total participants, are seen now in NGOs and even governments around the world. Girls are increasingly recognized as experts on their own lives and needs. Girls are welcomed to full participation as activists in making life better for girls everywhere. Which is how it should be.
Starting September 25, 2015, girls will be a big part of achieving the UN’s new Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Of course they’ll be leading on Goal 5: Gender Equality. And they’ll also be working on the other 16 goals. They’ll be making life better for everyone with their clear vision and uncompromising commitment.
Nancy Gruver is founder of New Moon Girls where girls worldwide share their original writing, opinions, video, photos, advice, support, art and more online + in our magazine.