Girls and young women face a number of challenges in their lives – from limits to their education because of gendered expectations and an unmet need for menstrual hygiene, to lacking a seat and voice at the table when policy decisions are made on their behalf.
But girls and young women are also raising their voices to advance gender equality and are driving transformative change in their communities.
In this exclusive conversation, Malala Yousafzai, Co-Founder of the Malala Fund, and Aya Mouallem, Women Deliver Young Leader, chat about the power of youth advocacy to deliver for good for girls and women and power progress for all.
Aya Mouallem: As young advocates, we bring knowledge and passion and are eager to see social change now. But it can still be a challenge to get decision-makers to take us seriously and to directly engage young people in the policies and programs that affect our lives. What is your message to world leaders on the power of meaningful youth engagement? Do you have an example/anecdote that demonstrates this power?
Malala Yousafzai: First, to young people: you don’t need to wait for someone in power to give you permission or even listen to you to be an activist. You can begin by educating yourself on issues, educating others and organising in your community. Get some momentum and try to make advocates out of everyone you meet.
As for leaders, I would say that they all should have noticed by now that this generation is ready to speak out, write, lead, march and vote on the issues important to them.
You can ignore us once or twice, but we’ll keep coming back. And when you’re gone, we’ll knock on the door of whoever comes next.
Aya Mouallem: Over the years there has been progress towards gender equality and I’ve even seen a shift in the way girls and women are portrayed in media – from victims and vulnerable to powerful agents of change. At the same time, this “global narrative” often leaves out the voices and perspectives of young people – especially adolescent girls. As we celebrate International Youth Day this month, how are you working with adolescent girls and young women to help ensure they have a seat and a voice at the table?
Malala Yousafzai: I started speaking out by blogging anonymously at 11 years old. To help more girls and young women share their stories, Malala Fund created Assembly — a for girls, by girls digital publication. In our first year, we’ve published essays, photos, illustrations and videos from young women in 83 countries. It’s their platform to tell the world about their lives, opinions, struggles and triumphs. I encourage everyone to check it out — and contribute!
Aya Mouallem: Thanks to your leadership and voice, issues around girls’ education have gotten a lot more attention over the years. One issue that continues to be a challenge is access to resources, especially quality sanitation facilities at school for girls during menstruation. We know that when gender sensitive water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) resources are absent at school, many adolescent girls drop-out—limiting their opportunities to lead in workplaces and society later on. How can communities – including parents and teachers – reduce the social stigma around menstruation and prevent the lack of WASH resources from acting as a barrier to girls’ education?
Malala Yousafzai: Last month, I travelled to Ethiopia and attended a workshop with girls on issues around menstruation and education. Some girls don’t learn about menstruation until their first period — and even fewer get comprehensive education on reproductive and sexual health. And far too many girls don’t have access to menstrual products or clean bathrooms at school; this results in a lot of girls just missing school altogether during their periods. To overcome this stigma, we have to start by talking about periods at school, at home and with friends.
Aya Mouallem: I’ve heard you speak about your aspiration to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister. From your father to Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, how have your role models shaped your vision for a more gender equal future and how do you hope to inspire others?
Malala Yousafzai: I have many role models: my parents, Benazir Bhutto, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, the young women I meet when I travel to countries where girls struggle to complete their education. Each person can teach you something valuable. If girls learn one thing from my life so far, I hope it’s that speaking out about the issues they care about can make a difference, no matter their age.
Aya Mouallem: From speaking out in Pakistan to raising your voice on behalf of girls in the hallways of power today, your story of peaceful perseverance—even in the face of violence—is an inspiration to so many young people around the world. What’s your advice to other youth who feel frustrated by setbacks or the slow pace of progress towards gender equality in their communities?
Malala Yousafzai: I don’t really think that young women need my advice. The girls I meet are often facing incredible challenges — and they’re finding their own ways to fight back in their communities. They’re so inspiring. When I get frustrated about our progress, they give me hope.
Aya Mouallem: We both know that cultural barriers and gender norms are often some of the greatest obstacles girls face in access to equality and education. In my experience as an advocate for involving more girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in Lebanon and Syria, a challenge for girls that show an interest in STEM is the discouragement from parents who see these fields as ‘too masculine’. Your father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, has been such a powerful male advocate for you and for girls around the world by challenging social taboos and encouraging your education. How can families and communities, especially boys and young men, be allies and champions for gender equality in their daily lives?
Malala Yousafzai: I think parents can start by raising daughters and sons as equals — both should go to school, both should do chores, both should be free to pursue the career they want and to marry or not marry who and when they choose. As individuals, as members of our communities, we should speak out against injustice and support leaders who believe in gender equality. And we should all listen more to girls — seek out their opinions, support girl activists and share their stories with friends and family.