Friday was all about girl power. Officially, it was the second annual International Day of the Girl. But for some Washington area girls, it was a chance to listen to a superstar among girls: a Pakistani 16-year-old named Malala Yousafzai.
About five years ago, Malala began speaking out about educating girls in Pakistan, a country in South Asia. The Taliban, a group that controls part of that country, is against girls going to school. A member of the Taliban shot Malala last year, but she survived the attack and continues to spread her message.
More than a dozen students from three local all-girls schools — Georgetown Visitation, Stone Ridge and Madeira — were invited to hear Malala speak Friday at the World Bank, an organization that lends money to businesses and agencies in poor countries.
“Malala talked about how getting girls education would pretty much change the world,” Jillian Murray, a junior at Visitation, said in a phone interview after the event. “The only thing holding them back was their lack of opportunity for an education.”
Jillian and the other girls are part of a group called Girl Up, a program created by the United Nations Foundation. Girl Up encourages mostly middle school and high school girls to raise money for and awareness about the problems teenage girls face in poor countries.
“That’s typically when bad things that happen to girls happen,” Girl Up Director Melissa Hillebrenner said. “We wanted to engage girls who can relate to that. They know what it’s like to be 13. . . . They know what they want for their lives in the U.S., and there’s this overwhelming feeling that it’s not fair” for girls who don’t have those opportunities.
There are 19 Girl Up clubs in the Washington area and more than 350,000 members worldwide. Since September 2010, nearly $3 million has been raised, some of it through mother-daughter teas, bake sales and penny collections at schools. The money goes to help girls in Guatemala, which is in Central America, and Ethiopia, Malawi and Liberia, which are all in Africa.
“What we try to do with Girl Up is focus on five key issues,” Hillebrenner said. “Access to education is central.”
The other four target areas are providing girls access to health care; keeping them safe from violence; giving them opportunities to be leaders; and making sure they have documents such as birth certificates.
Hillebrenner said the International Day of the Girl, which the United Nations started last year, has become a great way to highlight the group’s mission. Hillebrenner spent the day at the United Nations in New York with Girl Up’s teen advisers, a group of 20 or so teens from across the country who are trained as the group’s leaders and spokeswomen.
In Washington, Jillian, 16, and sister Meghan, 15, both former teen advisers, listened as Malala told her story.
“She was an amazing speaker,” Meghan said.
Both girls said that hearing Malala speak made them thankful.
“I just think that we take a lot of the things we have at Visitation . . . for granted,” Jillian said. “She doesn’t have any of those things. So many of those girls don’t have what we take for granted every day.”