Brief History of a Historic Youth-Led Campaign

One year before the United Nations approved the resolution to establish the International Day of the Girl Child, nearly 100 young activists with School Girls Unite launched the successful national campaign to mobilize U.S. support for this annual girls’ rights day. Similar to International Women’s Day, the U.N. set October 11 as the day each year “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

This grassroots effort led by School Girls Unite, the international program of the Youth Activism Project, really got traction when four co-founders were back from college over the summer. They worked as paid interns and took the reins of the campaign. They interviewed and hired our talented social media coordinator. They strategized and coached the younger School Girls, presented workshops at schools, explored collaboration with numerous nonprofits, and led a critical conference call with the White House.

During the summer, the round-the-clock commitment of these hardworking interns made all the difference in gaining momentum. Their strategic sense and innovative thinking were irreplaceable. When we describe this as a youth-driven campaign, girls have to be in the driver’s seat. Adults, including myself stay in the backseat and minimize time behind the steering wheel. Our nimble nonprofit, with this engine of interns and passionate younger School Girls Unite members, accomplished extraordinary results in a matter of months.

One high school club produced videos explaining the rationale for a girls’ rights day. More than 50 girls participated in an online contest to design the logo that many still consider too powerful. Hours were devoted to strengthening every sentence in a letter to the White House Council on Women and Girls. Middle school girls held a summit with the County Council Chair to learn the process of getting local and state Day of the Girl proclamations. Requests asking organizations to support the Day resulted in over 75 endorsements. “Negative Media Images” and “Child Marriage: Tragic Tradition,” became the model framework for nearly a dozen other action-oriented issues briefs, all written by young activists, that are posted on the website: www.dayofthegirl.org

This movement for gender equality has progressed beyond School Girls Unite. The original leaders have established the Day of the Girl-U.S. Action Team by including girls from many backgrounds and persuasions across the country to help drive this effort. “We’re on the precipice of something big,” predicts Anika Manzoor, 22, who’s been a human rights advocate and founding member of School Girls Unite since age 12.  Day of the Girl-U.S. Actions Coordinator Eliana Stanislawski, 17, emphasizes that it’s not enough to just learn about the problem: “There has to be value in that knowledge that incites action.”

Even with dozens of festering inequities and not one single mega-issue, Joanne Conelley, who has been an architect of this campaign from the beginning, says “We want girls to take ownership and make this Day ours.” The new tagline, Day of the Girl-US…A 100% Youth-Led Movement, should trigger a massive applause, especially from adults whose mantra is “to empower young people.” Instead, some girl-serving organizations have expressed deep concerns about this explicit independent move. As a member of the graying generation, I believe this approach of real youth-led mobilization is exactly what is needed. Elders who stress the need “to pass the torch” need to walk the talk.

Ten years from now, I predict thousands upon thousands of girls will create a sensation and cause a ruckus on October 11, 2023. It will be the norm for girls to speak about their dreams and demand gender equality.