© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why These Teen Girls Give Helen Clark More Snaps Than Beyoncé

Girl Up activists pose during their leadership summit in Washington, D.C. Top row, left to right: Keza Latifah Mashenge, Fiona Adams, Nehal Jain, Sarah Gulley. Second row: Kyung Mi Lee, Sarah Hesterman, Janice Catherine Yang.
Kristin Adair
Girl Up activists pose during their leadership summit in Washington, D.C. Top row, left to right: Keza Latifah Mashenge, Fiona Adams, Nehal Jain, Sarah Gulley. Second row: Kyung Mi Lee, Sarah Hesterman, Janice Catherine Yang.

Ask a typical teenage girl about the latest slang and girl crushes and you might get answers like "spilling the tea" and Taylor Swift. But at the Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., the answers were "intersectional feminism" — the idea that there's no one-size-fits-all definition of feminism — and U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres.

The U.N. Foundation's Girl Up initiative, a global campaign to promote adolescent girls' rights, started in 2010. This year, 275 youth leaders from 33 states and nine countries, including Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, came to D.C. to participate in leadership training (one workshop was "Become A Social Media Maven"), learn from speakers like U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios and lobby on Capitol Hill.

Goats and Soda spoke to a handful of Girl Up leaders. On top of hobbies like dancing and playing the flute, these girls are active in chapters on their campuses and in their communities.

In our conversation, they gushed over Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, and giggled when we teased them for not mentioning Beyoncé as a feminist icon. And there was a whole lot of snapping of fingers — their way of showing they liked what another was saying.

Their wish for all girls

Kristin Adair / NPR

Judge us for what we say, not how we look
Sarah Gulley, 17, (above) is the "head girl" — similar to the U.S. concept of "class president" — of her high school in New Zealand.

What I want to see is an equal representation of women in politics. New Zealand is a progressive country. We were the first country to allow women to vote [in 1893], and we have strong women like Helen Clark, the former prime minister.

Currently, we have two female politicians who are young and gorgeous, but they also have strong opinions. When they both ran in the same area, the media dubbed it the "Battle of the Babes." I'd like for women in politics to be judged by what they say and what they stand for, not how they look.

Give us the freedom to chooseSarah Hesterman, 17, lived in Qatar with her family and has spent time in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She now lives in Washington, D.C.

Just traveling around the Middle East, I felt like one of the biggest barriers for girls was not having the freedom to choose what they want to do with their lives — whether they want to go to school or have a family.

I went to Jordan and we saw so many refugee girls living in U.N. camps. They couldn't leave or go get an education. You could just tell that they wouldn't have the same opportunities as I would.

Their heroes

Kristin Adair / NPR

Kyung Mi Lee, 17, (above) moved to Hawaii from South Korea when she was 9. She's a part of a model United Nations.

Kim Coco Iwamoto is a contender for a state senate seat back home in Hawaii. What makes her special is that she is a transgender woman of color. It's important to have this kind of representation in places of government — to be able to look up and see that there's not only a woman, but a woman representing the LGBTQ community.

Keza Latifah Mashenge, 17, Rwanda. She says her world view is shaped by her African mother and Arab father.

Fadumo Dayibis running for presidency in Somalia. Fadumo has showed me that it is possible to challenge status quo in a region where women are not supposed to pursue political status or a career because of religion and culture. She's inspired me and a lot of girls from Rwanda to do the same.

Sarah Hesterman

Christiana Figueres is from Costa Rica and is [one of the candidates] nominated to be the next U.N. secretary general. She played a large part in making substantial moves to bring down climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

What feminism means in 2016

It has many facesVaannila Annadurai, 17, started the first Girl Up chapter in Kentucky.

One of the most exciting new changes is the concept of intersectional feminism: identifying and realizing that being a woman and defining feminism comes in a lot of different ways. A black woman, for example, experiences feminism differently from a queer woman. In the future, there will be many faces of feminism.

It welcomes men
Nehal Jain, 15, of Virginia says her trips to her family's homeland of India has allowed her to see firsthand what life is like for girls who can't go to school.

Feminism has really grown a lot. Now men are stepping up. Since #HeforShe(a movement calling on men to advocate for gender equality), they're embracing feminism and saying they're feminists, too.

Kristin Adair / NPR

It lets you find your own pathKeza Latifah Mashenge (above). Her response received the most "snaps" from the girls.

Back in Rwanda, the culture requires you to follow certain rules, certain decisions so as to please your family, friends and community. The first thing that feminism includes is the power of choice — to come up with your own path and decision. To make decisions about your life that aren't necessarily meant to please your parents. Living life as it comes because you want to reach your maximum potential.

It's important for people coming from developing countries to know that it's not a fight between men and women. We're fighting to better our community and create an environment where our children will thrive and rise together.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.