Girls and women are valuable. Now is the time to unite for every girl and woman so she understands her worth.
I have always been an advocate for the rights of girls and women although I did not always understand that what I was doing would be considered advocacy.
Growing up I was often teased that I was so passionate about certain issues I should be a lawyer. I simply felt a deep sense of sadness and outrage at what from a young age I could clearly understand was injustice and felt compelled to speak out.
I grew up in Gambia amongst a home of leaders. My grandfather was chairman of the Methodist church and a lecturer; my grandmother was a headmistress and the leader of many women’s groups, including a Girl Guide unit. My other grandmother was the first female speaker of the National Assembly in Gambia. I was surrounded by men and women who were strong, despite hardships, vocal and served their community.
Their words clearly influenced me. I read law at university and continued studying after graduation to be a solicitor. Whilst at law school I participated in a summer justice mission organised by a legal NGO in the UK that works with partner organisations in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. My role was to assist with giving legal advice, teaching people their rights and meeting with decision-makers to share what I had heard. My role also involved speaking out on behalf of those that could not speak out for themselves. I did not anticipate the trip would have a transformative effect on my life and ignite my passion to work towards ending violence against girls and women.
In Kenya, I spent time listening to men and women that had been imprisoned with no charge, no legal representation and no hope of freedom until they encountered our NGO. I sat amongst female prisoners who had given birth while in jail and were nursing their babies in prison and listened to the horrific stories of the violence they had experienced.
I travelled to Northern Uganda where I spent time in a United Nations camp for internally displaced people and listened to the stories of people who had fled their villages following an attack by the Lord's Resistance Army. During the attack their children were kidnapped to be used as child soldiers. The few children in the camp were the few they were able to rescue, the rest were killed.
In Rwanda I listened to the heartbreaking and miraculous stories of survivors of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. I returned to the UK overwhelmed by the shocking levels of violence I had heard and suffering I had left behind. I felt compelled to act but I had no idea how I could have an impact.
I started to volunteer with organisations where I could make small contributions to support campaigns and programmes, as I continued my career. My work was focused on criminal and immigration law, where I would listen to the stories of refugee girls and women seeking asylum. They had fled physical violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse and had been trafficked. I worked on rape cases where girls and women in the UK sat in courtrooms behind screens and were asked to prove that they had been violated to a room of strangers. With each of these experiences my outrage and passion to do something grew.
Eventually, my career path led me to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, where I am Advocacy Manager. I discovered that the Girl Guides that had been a very present part of my childhood in Gambia were actually a dynamic movement of 10 million girls and young women around the world speaking out to tackle inequality and injustice and living their lives to be of service to each other and their communities.
I am now responsible for WAGGGS’ global Stop the Violence campaign. The campaign is led by Girl Guides and Girl Scouts who raise awareness of violence in their communities, create safe spaces where girls can meet to share their experiences and be listened to and, critically, deliver the ‘Voices against Violence’ curriculum which is designed to tackle the root causes of violence against girls and young women.
Through this campaign, I have seen the positive impact that education can have in shaping the reality of girls’ day to day lives and the changes that are possible in families, communities and governments. Take, for example, the Girl Guides of Malta. They have to lobbied their government to outlaw FGM in Malta, they campaigned and compelled the government to change the laws relating to domestic violence and are now working with the police to develop procedures for handling reports of violence by girls.
There’s never been more passion and drive to stop the violence as now. It’s time to unite, to speak out and to engage at every level, from our homes to our communities. We must ensure our voices shape policies. We must ensure we have a seat at the table. And, as girls and women, we must put ourselves in positions where we are the decision-makers so we can create the world we want for every girl and any girl.