Yande Banda, 17, and Selin Ozunaldim, 18, don't want to be the world's token youth activists.
But that's how they felt at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris last week.
The three-day in-person and virtual event, hosted by U.N. Women and the governments of Mexico and France, aimed to create a global roadmap for gender equality and address the pandemic's unequal burden on the world's women and girls. French President Emmanuel Macron, Hillary Clinton and Melinda Gates were there, as were hundreds of policymakers, activists and young people. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a sponsor of NPR and this blog.)
Banda and Ozunaldim were invited to the event as U.N. Women youth ambassadors. Over the last nine months, the girls — along with 10 other ambassadors — consulted with over 1,000 girls and women in 120 countries to understand their concerns around gender equality. And they were eager to get onstage and tell the audience what they had learned.
But when it was their turn to speak, they say their speeches were cut short. Banda, who spoke at the opening ceremony, kept talking anyway.
"How dare they not listen to us?" she says.
NPR reached out to members of U.N. Women's press team to comment on why the girls' remarks were curtailed. They said there is no designated spokesperson on this issue, but provided the following statement: "Young people [were] featured strongly in the opening and closing ceremonies as well as throughout the forum. While there were challenges of logistical access and constrained times, those were endemic to all participants and not just youth."
Despite the criticism, the event concluded with commitments from world leaders to accelerate gender equality by 2026, and nearly $40 billion from governments, nonprofits and the private sector to fund programs for women and girls.
Banda, who is from Lusaka, Zambia, and Ozunaldim, who is from Istanbul, Turkey, talked to NPR about youth representation, what meaningful engagement with young people looks like and Harry Potter. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
So how do you think the conference went?
Selin: We were at the closing ceremony and unfortunately, we have once again witnessed tokenism at its highest. Youth were invited as speakers to the conference, but it seemed like we were there as window decorations.
I was one of the speakers. Even though each speaker should have had the exact same amount of speaking minutes, they cut me off after 2 minutes even though [older] government officials from very privileged countries were able to speak for more than 5 minutes.
Did this happen to you too, Yande?
Yande: I spoke during the opening session and I was given 3 minutes to speak on adolescent issues. I gave my speech, and the minister who was moderating the session came and tapped me on the shoulder and told me to hurry up. But I pushed her away and I went into the middle of the stage. I told leaders to stand up for education, stand up for funding and stand up for us.
And for that you got a standing ovation. Were you scared to keep on going?
Yande: Not at all. My goodness. In my mind, I was saying: Why would they want to silence the voices of girls?
What is it that you want world leaders to know about the plight of girls right now?
Yande: We're in a crisis now in education, and it's important we act urgently post-pandemic. During the pandemic, girls are more at risk of dropping out of school. Millions of girls are getting married off early. And the sad thing is that they're being married off for two chickens and two goats because their families want to compensate economically and take their sons to school.
What's even worse is that governments are cutting down on their education aid funding because of the pandemic. The U.K., for example, has cut down its foreign aid expenditure to about .5% this year from .7% [of their GNI]. That's millions of pounds in deductions, and it's expected to detrimentally affect the education of girls around the world.
Another issue we're seeing is the gender digital divide that has resulted in many girls skipping out on school because they don't have access to technology.
Selin, you work with Turkey's chapter of Girls Who Code, a technology nonprofit organization. Are you seeing that digital divide in your own country?
Selin: In Turkey, school is still taking place remotely from home. I was talking to a girl from the east side of the country, and she told me that she and her two siblings have to share their mother and father's mobile phones to enter their online classes. And their access to the internet is very limited. Because there are three of them, each day, one of them had to skip class so that the other sibling could attend. This is happening across the country. This is not acceptable.
How do you have time to be an activist for multiple organizations while also being a student? Do you have a magic time-turner like Hermione in Harry Potter? She used it so she could have more hours in the day.
Selin: I actually do have [a replica of the Harry Potter] time-turner. It's in my closet. But I also have a real, actual wand from Ollivander's Wand Shop [a souvenir shop in Universal Studios Florida]. I'm a big Harry Potter fan.
Do you use it to help you with your activism?
Selin: No. I use the wand when me and my brother get into fights. We use our wands instead, and shout spells at each other: Expelliarmus! [A spell to disarm an enemy.]
You say you left the Generation Equality Forum feeling disappointed by the lack of representation of youth of the world. What would you have liked to see happen at the forum?
Yande: Inviting us to just give a speech for 3 minutes, putting our photos on a campaign website or putting us on a stage is not meaningful engagement. We must be at the center of the process. But to do that, world leaders and organizations need to partner with us. Fund us. Involve us. Cooperate with us. We don't want to be there just for the picture.
Can you give me an example of that?
Selin: I work very closely with Girl Up, and we are really helping girl activists in Turkey find their inner strength and power. We host virtual workshops, social media campaigns and events to share information about girl-centered issues around the world: mental health, feminism, period poverty, female genital mutilation and education. It gives them a safe space to practice their leadership skills.
You were in Paris for a week. Did you do anything for fun?
Selin: We recorded many TikTok videos. Silly dancing, posing with the Eiffel Tower like we were trying to push it over. Very silly and touristy stuff. Gossiping, talking about clothes, talking about our lives. Yande and I are actually best friends in real life. We both first bonded over Twilight.
People think we are very serious, that we can't talk about anything but gender equality and feminism — which is true. But we are also teenagers.