UNICEF ACTIVATE: A Reflection
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"I am a feminist, and a woman's right activist." This is how Saba Ismael, the Executive Director of Aware Girls, was introduced during the Unicef Activate Talk I had the privelege of seeing on June 10th. A feminist is someone who believes in the social and political equality of the sexes. It is hard to believe that in the Western world there is anyone left who doesn't voluntarily claim the title of feminist, and wear it with pride. Surely everybody agrees that a world where all genders can thrive and not risk discrimination or persecution because of their genders is one worth fighting for? And yet I was afraid of the 'F-word' when I discovered what feminism is perceived to be: the idea of man-hating, belligerent and unwanted woman who refuses to accept that things have changed was one I never wanted to be associated with.
Seeing Saba Ismael, a woman whose background means that her claiming of the feminist title puts her very life in danger every day, proudly wear it like a badge of honour was moving. Beginning her talk by delineating the situation that women face in Pakistan, Saba Ismael's poignant talk about how she became a women's right activist after being abused, as a child living in rural Pakistan was one I do not think I will be forgetting any time soon.
Being born a girl in Pakistan, she said, is being born into a life of routine discrimination, persecution, and a systematic denial of opportunities. There is a 45% literacy rate in Pakistan, due to the institutional sexism in the country. The opening of her speech was one of sobering frankness, going so far as saying that girls in Pakistani societies are treated like commodities, and nothing more.
Aware Girls works to build the leadership abilities and skills of young women, encouraging them to become agents of change in their communities in order to stop gender based violence and encourage the education and empowerment of women. They also work to allow women access to legal and financial help when it comes to addressing gender based violence, as well as establishing women friendly environments in politics. As such, more and more girls have begun to speak for their rights and advocate for the liberation of women in Pakistan.
Later in the conference Chernor Bah, a youth activist from Sierra Leone, spoke about his journey from a dreamer who wanted children to be allowed a voice in a country that had deprived them of one for so long, to an activist speaking for the rights of young people all over the world. Chernor has worked (with Malala Yousafzai, no less), for the education of all young people, and through the medium of education bring about peace in Sierra Leone. Chernor calls himself a "girl champion": a defender of the education of young women and a fighter for a world where being a girl is no longer a disadvantage.
These two people risked their lives and lived through incredibly harrowing situations in order to come to the point where they can claim the titles of feminists and girl champions as their own, and wear them with pride. They are brave, and willing to work tirelessly for change. And even though most of the time I am sitting at my desk with nothing to fear but missing a homework deadline, I balk at the idea of labelling myself as anything that might seem confrontational. After today's talk, I changed my mind on that. From now on, I will begin to act in the way that both Chernor and Saba encouraged: fearlessly, and with hope for change alive in my heart. And I will proudly call myself a feminist, and a girl champion.