My journey into the work and mission of Let Girls Lead began when I was 12 years old. I was travelling with my mother in her native Argentina. During a train trip, a young girl boarded who was not much older than me. She was carrying a baby and had a toddler in tow. They were ragged and dirty and very clearly poor. She walked down the aisle asking for food or money. As I watched everyone turn away from her, I became so angry. I vowed that if I were ever in a position where I could do something for other girls like her, I wouldn’t turn away. I would act. Throughout the years, I learned the extent to which girls and young women around the world bear the brunt of poverty, conflict and disasters. Lacking access to education and economic opportunities, lacking a voice in selfdetermination and even lacking support from parents and siblings, girls are routinely subjected to horrific abuse, violence, and devastating cultural practices. But beyond this, my early experiences working in Ghana, India and Honduras also showed me that girls know best their own realities, and local leaders know best the obstacles and how to overcome them.
HOW DID YOU MAKE IT HAPPEN? In 2009, I started with three staff and a budget of $250k. One of our first programs was in Malawi where girls are forced into marriage as early as 11 or 12 years of age. Through leadership development and advocacy capacity building, girl leaders became empowered and learned how to influence village authorities, many of whom eventually agreed to penalize men who marry any girl younger than 21. With voices amplified, these girls turned small victories into largescale change. Today, these young leaders are advocating for passage of a National Marriage Bill. By listening to and investing in girls and their allies, we support them to create change far beyond our own imagination in terms of scale and impact. Supporting advocacy and leadership training may not be as immediately tangible as sending school supplies or building a health clinic. But we know that our approach and programs have the greatest potential for making scalable change that lasts. My team now numbers 11, and we are working with girls, young women, and their allies in ten countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE STARTING OUT ? One of my biggest challenges early on was to help people understand that girls are not victims. Regardless of the enormous obstacles they face, girls are leaders and agents of change who have the power to transform their own lives, families, communities and the world. We’ve overcome this challenge by creating spaces for girls and their allies to share their own stories, amplify their own voices, and develop their own solutions to the challenges they face.
WHO IS YOUR ROLE MODEL? I have had the honor to work for and with some remarkable people from all over the world. But most recently, I added a new role model to my list: 15 year old indigenous Mayan girl named Emelin. As a result of her participation in our program in Guatemala, she and her friend Elba learned to fight for their rights and transform their community. These inspiring young leaders advocated for laws and funding to ensure that girls can go to school, stay healthy, and learn important skills to escape poverty. When Let Girls Lead participated at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women this past March, Emelin was invited to open the “Every Woman Every Child” congress, alongside UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Melinda Gates. Poised and eloquent in her native Spanish, Emelin spoke to a UN Chamber filled with global leaders and diplomats: “As a leader in my community, I fight for my rights, because the rights of girls and women are human rights, and all girls have a voice and we will claim our rights.” She was simply remarkable, and testament to the fact that adolescent girls truly are inspiring leaders.
VISION FOR YOUR FUTURE: My vision within the next 10 years is to continue expanding Let Girls Lead’s work so that 40 million girls around the world can finish school, stay healthy, overcome violence and escape poverty. My goal also is to help my daughters grow into smart, confident and spunky young women who can make their own way in the world and handle whatever life brings them with strength and compassion.
ADVICE FOR GIRLS
On ACHIEVING YOUR DREAMS
Find good role models who will challenge you to learn and grow. I have been blessed with wonderful mentors who helped to open doors and explore opportunities that I never would have imagined. Also, don’t give up – even when you are facing challenges. You can definitely achieve your dreams as long as you keep trying.
On REACHING YOUR FULL POTENTIAL
My advice is to never doubt that “small” changes can lead to movements that create lasting change. In 2009, I started Let Girls Lead with three staff and a budget of $250k. One of our first programs was in Malawi, where girls are forced into marriage as early as 11 or 12 years of age. By investing in Malawian girls and in-country leaders, we supported a local campaign to end child marriage. Starting with just a few girls and one chief, this campaign eventually convinced 60 village chiefs to outlaw child marriage and help thousands of girls stay in school. These inspiring girl leaders turned their early small victories into large-scale change, most recently advocating for a national law that protects 4 million Malawian girls from child marriage.
ADVICE TO YOUR TEENAGE SELF: Don’t be afraid of the future and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. You have the power to create your own reality – listen to your own inner voice and you’ll find exactly the path for you.
LEAVING YOUR MARK: I would like to be remembered for helping to create a better world. Since 2009, Let Girls Lead has helped to improve the lives of seven million girls. I am honored to have had the chance to enable girls to transform their own lives, families and communities.