What It Means To Be A Young Woman In 2023, According To The UN's Elizabeth Nyamayaro
'We can’t be victims; we have to be survivors,' Amina, 14, told me defiantly as we stood in her family’s back garden in rural Aswan, Upper Egypt. Her big brown eyes glistened with tears, and I felt a lump rise at the back of my throat. It was mid-2022, and Egypt was facing a severe sweltering 45°c heatwave. I was visiting the country to witness the impact of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) women’s empowerment initiative, which provides women with in-kind loans to support them establish businesses as they grapple with the devastating impact of climate change. Like many girls in her community, Amina had dropped out of school when climate shocks destroyed her family’s crops and now helped her mother raise and sell chickens and ducks provided to them by WFP. 'I know that one day, we will make enough money so that I can go back to school,' she spoke with firm conviction, 'I want to become a doctor so that I can help my community.'
As we hugged and said 'goodbye', Amina’s words filled me with hope. With one statement, she had articulated the indomitable spirit of the many young women and girls I meet daily in my humanitarian work as the Special Advisor for the United Nations Senior World Food Programme. There she was, facing life’s most difficult challenges, yet she clung to hope and was determined to make a difference. It's this same spirit of perseverance, determination, and self-sacrifice that has fuelled the women’s rights movement over the centuries. It's this same spirit that I believe is needed right now as women and girls once again face pushback against hard-fought gains for gender equality.
This year we mark International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 in a still unequal world. A world where women and girls globally continue to be devalued, despite their proven abilities as leaders and agents of change. A world where gender-based violence continues to impact one in three women and girls worldwide, despite our public outcry for justice. A world where young women and girls are struggling with the negative consequences of social media, which has given rise to self-esteem and mental health issues. All these challenges, coupled with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, have regressed progress toward gender equality, leaving many of us feeling defeated and hopeless. So, where do we go from here? How can we find hope in the wake of so much suffering? How can we find a path forward in a world that is so divided?
First, we must remind ourselves of our wins. In moments of despair, it is often helpful to focus on the positive. While the past years have been difficult, the pushback on women's and girls’ rights has also given rise to a younger generation of feminists of all genders who are determined to make a difference. We have also seen unprecedented male accountability in recent years through movements such as #MeToo and UN Women’s HeForShe, which calls upon men and boys to do their part in ending the oppression of women and girls. This solidarity approach to gender equality, which has long been seen as a women’s issue led by women, should give us hope as other genders share the burden of creating true societies of equality where we can all be free to be our true selves.
Secondly, we must keep advocating for laws that protect women and girls and for increased budgets toward equality efforts. This year, the United Nations, under the IWD theme ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,’ is calling upon governments, activists, and the private sector to create a safer and inclusive digital world as well as put investments towards closing the digital divide and the underrepresentation of girls in science, technology, engineering, and maths education and careers. This is welcome news, as we need more female leaders in underrepresented fields making decisions that benefit other women and girls.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need everyone to be involved. Gender equality has the potential to liberate all of us. However, its achievement is only possible when we all do our part. As we celebrate IWD, Womankind Worldwide’s #EverydayFeminism campaign invites us to own our power and take small everyday acts of feminism. Whether challenging harmful stereotypes and gender norms or sharing the domestic load, none of our actions are ever too small, and together they can culminate into big change. So just like previous generations, we, too, must keep fighting the good fight, hopefully finding strength in Amina’s words, ‘we can’t be victims; we have to be survivors’ – until all of us are liberated.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Elizabeth Nyamayaro is an award-winning humanitarian and Special Advisor for the United Nations Senior World Food Programme. Born in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth has worked at the forefront of global development for over two decades improving the lives of underserved populations and has held leadership roles at the UN Women, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and World Bank She is also the founder of United Nations HeForShe, one of the world’s largest solidarity movement for gender equality – and author of a Scribner published memoir, I am a Girl from Africa.
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