On October 11, we will celebrate International Day of the Girl, a day that focuses a lens on the challenges girls face while promoting their empowerment, fulfillment, and human rights. The theme for this year’s celebration is “GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable.”
As described by the United Nations, the theme reflects how “girls are moving from dreaming to achieving. …As entrepreneurs, innovators, and initiators of global movements, girls are leading and fostering a world that is relevant for them and future generations. …The global community must create more opportunities for girls’ voices to be heard and safe spaces for their participation in decision-making, as leading change for girls is all our responsibility.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Dr. Leanne Foster, Head of Trafalgar Castle School in Ontario, Canada, shares her thoughts below on the importance of girls making their voices heard as they construct a new way of being active participants in our global community today.
Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
“Challenge her mind. Strengthen her voice. Nurture her heart.” This is our new mission statement at Trafalgar Castle School. Hearing how it resonated across our community reaffirmed our belief that what we stand for is both important and necessary in a rapidly changing and sometimes uncertain world.
“Use your voice to lift others up.” This is a message shared with girls’ school students each and every day. And at an all-girls school, this message takes on added weight because far too often the voices of girls and women are discounted, their experiences undervalued, and their motives for speaking up questioned.
Holding a position of power is no guarantee women will be heard. Research spanning a 25-year period from 1990 to 2015 shows female U.S. Supreme Court justices are interrupted more by male justices and advocates, even when controlling for factors such as seniority on the bench. We don’t need to go south of the Canadian border to find examples of female politicians being professionally and personally undermined by purposefully targeted editorials and vile social media attacks, like former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould experienced prior to resigning from her cabinet position.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, therefore, that teenage Greta Thunberg’s climate activism has provoked a strong backlash from media personalities and politicians. She’s been called mentally ill and unstable. Detractors claim she’s manipulated by adults and her speeches are penned by professional activists. Doctored photos show her pictured alongside members of ISIS and false news reports claim she’s earned more than $46 million from her activist work. These attacks are attempts to silence Greta’s voice.
I find the reaction to Greta both perturbing and fascinating. It’s one thing to disagree with her, but it’s quite another to attack her personally. Columnist Joyce Fagan, writing in the Irish Examiner notes when a logical rebuttal won’t work against a fact-based message, proponents turn their focus instead to both the messenger and the delivery. “[When] an argument is so strong and so scientifically supported, there is no way to debate it or defeat it. So in order to derail the traction it is gaining, tone-policers go after the manner in which it is delivered, because they are all out of other options.” Fagan refers to this as “the inevitable tone-policing of the girl with the plait.”
The “tone police” continue to accuse Greta of being unhinged and overly emotional. They criticize the manner of her delivery, accuse her of fomenting hysteria, all the while ignoring her delivery of the facts. The purpose of this criticism is to minimize the impact of her message—to muffle her voice.
Such treatment of young voices isn’t new. Look back to the shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the visceral reaction to Emma Gonzalez’s speech calling for changes to gun laws. After speaking out, Emma was criticized for her appearance and sexual orientation. She and other Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors were accused of being crisis actors. A falsified video emerged of her tearing up the U.S. Constitution, and a candidate running for the Maine House of Representatives publicly called her a “skinhead lesbian.” Through all the attacks, Emma remained defiant and continued to advocate for her cause.
Like Emma, Greta is showing she won’t be easily silenced by her critics, and in fact, is pushing back against their efforts. Last week, she cut through the recent attempts to spin her message by noting, “It seems [critics] will cross every possible line to avert the focus, since they are so desperate not to talk about the climate and ecological crisis.” When asked to respond to the argument that she sounds and writes too much like an adult to be credible, Greta replied, “Don’t you think that a 16-year-old can speak for herself?”
Girls and young women absolutely can speak for themselves. In fact, they have a lot to say, and we would all be wise to pay attention. Are they young, sometimes naïve, perhaps idealistic, and often demanding in their desire for a better world? Of course they are. Young people always have been, since time immemorial. But the difference in 2019 is that girls and young women are demanding to be heard on larger stages. They have role models and support networks to help them speak up. They are learning to make their voices heard as they construct a new way of being young, female, and active participants in their communities.
Girls today are challenging the status quo to be the change they wish to see in our world. They are using their voices to lift all of us up.
Leanne Foster, Ph.D., Head of School, Trafalgar Castle School