Cynthia Sularz was only a child when a man told her that “little girls shouldn’t worry about politics.”
Now 20, Sularz has not taken that lesson to heart.
The diplomacy student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey decided to work toward building up girls’ confidence through political advocacy, so that more “little girls” could worry about politics.
Sularz is taking that goal to Sydney, Australia for the 2014 G(irls)20 Summit beginning Aug. 25. At G(irls)20, young women representing different countries gather to compile a list of crucial women’s issues for G20 leaders to address — this year, the girls are turning a keen eye to how to actually solve those problems.
This year also brings three new faces to the table. For the first year ever, G(irls)20 has delegates representing Pakistan, Afghanistan and the MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa).
“It’s really important to have those voices at the table for two reasons,” says G(irls)20 founder Farah Mohamed. “One, when you’re having conversations about these countries, we need delegates from those countries. Two, a lot has happened there — we could use best practices. Rather than do this for them, we want to do this with them.”
That means that rather than just drafting a list of ideas for G20 leaders to merely consider, the delegates — all aged 18 to 20 — are brainstorming ways in which the G20 Summit can better the lives of women and girls through concrete education and empowerment initiatives.
“I have to tell you, it’s only been in the last two years that we’ve seen leaders pay attention to the role of women,” Mohamed says. “And now it’s been put on the agenda. So now we’re saying, ‘Okay, you’ve identified it as an issue, let’s see some action. We want to see some tools.’”
The “tools” portion is where G(irls) 20 delegates come in. Mohamed says the G(irls)20 agenda mirrors the G20 agenda so that the girls can present solutions plans for the specific issues that the G20 has decided are most relevant to its member countries from year to year. This year, the girls are addressing the dearth of youth employment opportunities worldwide and the effects of women’s entrepreneurial spirit on global agriculture.
The two-day summit culminates in a giant group gathering, where the girls finalize language to send to G20 leaders that will advocate for a greater spotlight on women’s issues that will help the G20 meet its 2 percent growth target.
Mohamed expects this latest crop of delegates to be most engaged around the issue of youth unemployment.
“It’s become quite a crisis,” she says. “We potentially have a lost generation here.”
The final day meeting is also the girls’ last chance to fight for their own projects, their own pet issues and, most importantly, their own countries’ interests. The best arguments and best teamwork win the top slots on the envoy sent to G20.
“In the past it’s ended at midnight — if we’re lucky,” Mohamed says. “They bring their A-game.”
Mohamed emphasizes that G(irls)20 is decidedly “not a big brother approach.” And, she asserts, it’s about more than “consciousness-raising” — that’s why so many of these rising stars apply to be delegates in the first place.
Those delegates include 19-year-old Seerat Zahra of the Roots School in Islamabad, the first to represent Pakistan at G(irls)20. While she admits the distinction is “a little overwhelming,” she says she excited to propose her own research interests, and also to get input from the other delegates so she can take her project home and lay the groundwork.
Her goal: to reduce the school drop-out rate of young girls from the lower socioeconomic segment of Pakistani society.
“Arguably the greatest obstacle to women and girls in Pakistan is the cultural misogyny and backward social norms that pervade the Pakistani society,” she said in an e-mail interview. “It is this extreme misogyny and gender-double standards that seep into the entire social—and therefore, political and economic—fabric of the society, and pulls women down.”
She says she’s attending the summit to make sure that perspective and viewpoint from her home country isn’t lost in the shuffle as 53 other girls — young, smart and sharp, just like her — push for their own projects to take center stage.
After a few rounds of public speaking practice, digital strategy camp and leadership training preceding the summit, they’ll be ready to hit the ground running when the time comes to prioritize their agenda as a group.
G(irls) 20 doesn’t accept any government funding, but Mohamed has found partners in places like the NOVO foundation, along with in-kind support from Bane Capital and Caterpillar (and even Jones New York, which is providing each of the delegates with a professional wardrobe). Not to mention the wealth of donations from past delegates, many of whom are still highly engaged in the group and its mission.
“You know the ‘old boys club?’” Mohamed says. “These girls are ‘the new girls club.’ If I’d had access to this when I was 18 or 19, it would’ve blown my mind.”
G(irls)20 alums created a Facebook group to keep in touch and pass along tips on grad school applications and job hunt struggles.
“I honestly get notifications from it daily,” Sularz said.
As new groups of delegates are added each year, the members post about more than sweeping global trends — they also talk about the personal issues each delegate faces when she leaves the conference, when she returns to a home country that isn’t as receptive to her ideas and opinions.
Zahra said she’s looking forward to finding that community through G(irls) 20, with other “little girls” who “worry about politics.”
“I view leadership as not just an official position but an attitude, an approach to life. One of my strengths, I feel, is fortitude,” said Mohamed. “I personally have faced many issues for being a girl and had to struggle a lot … so delegates from those countries may have had similar experiences as I’ve had.”