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Look to Girls and Youth to Drive Change for 2030

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As we head into the fourth International Day of the Girl this October 11, I'm reminded of conversations I had with a bold group of young girls a few weeks ago at the United Nations offices in New York.

We were there for the United Nations' high-profile summit to officially launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to eradicate poverty while caring for the planet, promoting peace, and achieving prosperity.

Midtown Manhattan was in lockdown. Blue uniformed cops on every corner, yellow traffic cones blocked streets and honking motorcades accompanied presidents, prime ministers and the Pope to the UN Headquarters. And in the middle of it all were nine teenage girls from some of the world's poorest regions in places like Kenya, the Philippines, Brazil, and Pakistan.

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A delegation of girls supported by Plan International attended the UN General Assembly and the Sustainable Development Summit from September 25 to 27, 2015 in New York. Photo: Plan International

The girls were attending the summit as advocates for those left behind by the last set of global development goals -- the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs saw remarkable success, of course. The number of people living in absolute poverty worldwide has halved, deaths of children under five have also been halved, twice as many mothers now survive childbirth, more girls and boys are in school and millions more people now have access to safe drinking water.

But these next global goals -- the SDGs that will take us to the year 2030 -- will need to build on the progress of the MDGs and go beyond them to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable population -- especially girls, and including people in the poorest and most remote rural communities, refugees, and women in minority groups.

So I asked the girls, what did they think of these new goals? Their level-headed answers were impressive.

Speaking straight after attending the glitzy opening ceremony of the summit in the UN's towering glass HQ, the girls were impressed -- but focused on what will make a practical difference.

2015-10-07-1444188727-4227544-201509USA14lpr.jpg Ghene, aged 14 and from the Philippines, thought the ceremony was "beautiful" but wanted leaders to prioritize protection of girls from violence and rape, and to help girls like her friends who had become pregnant too young and dropped out of school.

Sana, 17, from Karachi, Pakistan, said, "I never dreamt that I would be here, sitting by Malala. So many girls I know never get to school -- with education a girl can do everything. Without education she is nothing."

"To stay in school we need sanitary towels, books, and pencils," said Antonina, 17, from Nyanza, Kenya (an area so rural that schools are surrounded by fences to keep out wild animals) -- who was less interested in the rhetoric than the outcome of the summit.

The Pope's words on protecting the environment rang true with Irlane, 16, from the forests of Northern Brazil. "Globalization is bringing factories and pollution," she said.

Other young people I talked to at the summit also prioritized climate change. New graduate Angela, part of the Canadian delegation and of the Sayisi Dene First Nation in Manitoba, has seen her people's traditional livelihoods of hunting and fishing "wiped out by climate change."

"Indigenous communities throughout the world can no longer use our knowledge of ecology to survive -- we need help and empowerment," she said.

All the girls focused on the biggest issue in the summit. How do we move from words on paper to action on the ground? Experts at the summit had at least four key answers:

  1. Learn from the MDGs: As an example, Rwanda became one of the first countries to make the most progress on the development goals. Rwanda had just emerged from genocide when the MDGs came into force and adopted them as a globally accepted and measurable set of aims. One of the main lessons was the importance of ensuring women had their rights -- because that drives social development.
  2. Measure impact: Collect data on the most vulnerable and marginalized people -- country by country -- and track their access to health, to education, to a way of making a living.
  3. Find the funds to invest: Aid is essential to implementing the SDGs -- but it is not enough. We need to tap into all means available -- innovative financing, domestic resource mobilization, and bringing in the private sector in a way that is transparent and accountable to international human rights, labour and environmental standards.
  4. Innovate: One of the world's largest telecommunications companies in China is piloting low-cost computers and connectivity for health clinics in Kenya. In healthcare, the Grand Challenges initiative brought together stunning innovations from health phones with apps for newborn care to a new method of disinfecting a baby's umbilical cord that has saved 7,500 lives in Nepal alone.

These are smart, critical ideas that are worth pursuing. But as Antonina commented, the key is to change hearts and minds. Young people are often important change-makers -- Angela is working with a First Nations NGO; Ghene has successfully lobbied her local council leader to back sex education sessions in schools to avoid early pregnancy; Irlane is working with girls' clubs; and Sana is training to be an advocate in her community.

Last year, the global population of young people between the ages of 10 and 24 hit 1.8 billion, a historic high, and nine out of 10 of them live in the developed world. Youth between 15 and 24 form well over half the population in developing countries.

With numbers like those, young people, and girls like those who I met at the UN, are not only key beneficiaries of the education, health, and prosperity that the SDGs aim to achieve, but they have the collective power to drive that change and will have a big part to play in making the promise of the SDGs a reality by 2030.

Marie Staunton is the Interim Chief Executive Officer of Plan International Canada.

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