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Girls Learn International leaders speak to UN

By Emily Kvitko

Many consider New York a prime destination for shopping and park-walking, but juniors Maya Roy and Nina Shirole visited a different side of the city: the international headquarters of the United Nations (UN). The two women came face-to-face with the important building as leaders and representatives of the club they launched at Gunn—the first public school in Palo Alto to host a chapter of Girls Learn International (GLI).

GLI’s mission is to educate American teenagers about global gender disparities in education. According to Shirole, a General Assembly that today buzzes with women was once empty of a single female’s voice. “Twenty years ago, delegates from all over the world gathered at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to discuss possible ways to help the girl-child, but no girls were part of the conversation,” she said. As a result, the Working Group on Girls (WGG) was founded within the Commission. GLI sends a student delegation from their club network to the Commission every year.

After committing to being a part of this year’s delegation, Roy and Shirole spent one year learning about the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights alongside a group of peers. This international partnership allowed the girls to develop pen-pal-like relationships with students in developing countries. Shirole shared this experience during her presentation at the UN. Similarly, as a former resident of India, Roy contributed her personal experiences with poverty-related learning disparities. “This could have been you,” she said. “It’s just [by] chance that you’re not that girl struggling to get that education.”

Shirole agrees and believes that people should use their advantages to help others. “It’s our duty to be conscious of our privilege and make an effort to be advocates for those who are not as lucky as we are, ” Shirole said.

After a hefty application process, Roy and Shirole were accepted as the only two delegates from northern California to speak at the CSW’s 59th session. According to Roy, the Gunn chapter now has a better sense of the application process, an understanding which will help other club applicants next year.

Last week, Roy and Shirole were joined by 34 GLI delegates from around the world, in addition to outstanding professionals in the field. “We are going to be meeting advocates, amazing women and men from all over the world, who are all mentors and role models,” Shirole said before the conference. “There is a group of people whose career has been all about activism. They are extremely supportive of people like us, who are just starting out on our journey into advocacy.”

This group of people came together to evaluate the successes and failures of the Beijing Platform for Action, established in 1995, and to set policy and implement goals for the post-2015 agenda. Several other challenges also made the discussion list, such as high mothers’ mortality rates, unsanitary methods of childbirth, lack of access to health care, the educational gap and violence towards girls who desire an education. “I plan to speak about how the U.S. must examine its domestic policies in order to keep its reputation as a global beacon for gender equality because calling other countries out for discriminating against women while restricting gender equality at home is hypocritical,” Roy said before the event.

Roy believes that, although progress is in the making, it will not be effective unless the minds of people are fully opened. “Gender equality is not a reality anywhere,” Roy said. “Setting grand plans like the Beijing Platform only works if we, as an international community, are willing to be objective and criticize our own efforts—and that is what CSW 59 is all about.”

As they prepared to leave for New York, Roy and Shirole were handed a 15-page agenda for the week. Their itinerary was comprised of an encounter with former First Lady Hillary Clinton, panels in the non-governmental organization (NGO) forum, an annual March for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights and a screening of the documentary Difret. “It’s not only that youth are participating, but that they are shaping how the whole flow runs,” Roy said.

Last week, the young women took the city by storm. “The Under-Secretary General of the UN, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, addressed us at the Teen Orientation, hosted by the Working Group on Girls, truly inspiring us to not be afraid to voice our opinions in adult-led avenues of social change,” Shirole said.

Roy and Shirole are speaking up for the generation that will rule the population. “The most important thing we could get out of the Commission on the Status of Women is to learn by listening,” Shirole said. “Not only is it something that is super important for us learning as humans, as advocates, but it is also an opportunity for us to experience something that might change our lives.”

Roy is not the first member of her family to promote social justice. “This used to be my mom’s career,” she said. “I was raised on the idea that if you want to see change, you go for it, and you put yourself out there, and you put yourself and your ideas on the line to make sure it happens.”

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