By Taryn Everdeen
Girl Up is an organisation founded by the United Nations Foundation, aiming to empower girls to empower other girls in the Global South like Guatemala, Ethiopia and India, focusing on the basic rights of safety, sanitation and education. Through giving girls the tools they need to take on leadership roles in their communities, Girl Up is adding momentum to a movement of social change. The organisation is largely youth-led, with individual groups operating under Girl Up spread across the world.
In August 2018, Girl Up Norwich became the fifth UK club, launched by a group of girls aged 16-17 who met volunteering at the Women of the World festival. After coming across the Girl Up through working on their collaborative project with Disney, Dream Big Princess, Maud Webster (17) decided to found the group.
“The WOW festival gave us momentum that I didn’t want to lose after it ended. We all wanted to keep the spirit of WOW alive, and I saw starting Girl Up Norwich as a way we could achieve that.”
The group grew rapidly, attracting 35 young people to its first meeting. Now, they have nearly 100 people on their mailing list, and 1000 followers on their social media channels. They hold bi-monthly meetings which are open to 13-24 year-olds interested in advocating for awareness of gender equality issues in the local community. These meetings provide a safe space for young people to voice their opinions, to share their own experiences and meet new, like-minded people.
“We’ll chat about anything and everything. At a recent meeting, menstruation was on the agenda: we talked about why the period taboo exists and what we can do about it, the problems we have, and the implications for transgender people. One of our members gave us a short talk about reusable menstrual products and their benefits. Everyone has a chance to speak if they want to, the atmosphere at the meetings is always supportive.”
With their members being in school, the main challenge has been balancing this kind of social activism alongside education: everyone is busy, and sometimes there are problems with finding a date that works for everyone. The popularity of the group is a really positive thing, but it does mean that it’s difficult to find a venue that can accommodate all of them.
“Our first two meetings were held in a café, with tables dragged together, squeezing everyone into a space which was really too small. It was free for us to use, but being in a public place, it was noisy, and making sure everyone was heard was hard work. We switched to the conference room at the back of the library, and that was a better space for meeting, but it costs money to hire out, and we’re operating on very limited funds. Ideally, we want somewhere we can book to meet for free, and have reached out to local organisations who might be able to help.”
In October 2018, six of the Girl Up Norwich members attended the UK Leadership Summit, held at the Disney headquarters in London. Welcomed by sourdough toast and blueberry muffins, over 100 girls and women from across the worldwide Girl Up network gathered in one place to listen to inspiring talks and panelists and connect with each other.
“I feel like these connections are so important - through events like these, we broaden our network and our movement becomes stronger.”
After three months of planning, Girl Up Norwich pulled off an arts night, an evening of live music accompanied by a gallery displaying work curated by Girl Up member Caitlin Foden.
“Our theme for the artwork was ‘The Female Gaze’, subverting the art tradition of women being depicted a certain by men, giving local female artists a space and a platform to share their work. It was really powerful just seeing how different everyone’s interpretations of the theme were.”
The event was a huge success, sold out, raising £350 for Girl Up, enough to support 17 girls from the Global South in getting an education. Standing room only, the intimate Norwich Arts Centre bar was crammed, celebrating the talent of the young musicians playing.
Since December, the group has appeared on BBC Radio Norfolk multiple times, bringing their chat from meetings to the airwaves, sharing their views on topics like travelling as a woman, sexual harassment, and the glass ceiling. Two of their members went on to co-present four radio shows, inviting guests to interview and helping to direct the content. They were also approached by a local media company to produce a series of podcasts on the topics of ‘Masculinity’, ‘The Period Taboo’ and ‘Inspirational Women’, which can be found here.
What stands out about the group is that it’s entirely run by young people.
“We get asked about who’s in charge, and people are often surprised when we tell them it’s just us. There aren’t any adults telling us what to do. What’s great about Girl Up is that we have freedom to do what we want, and focus on the issues that matter most to us.”
So, what’s next for this group of teens? Big things! They’re looking to expand the group, to involve even more members, and pass on the leadership to new young people as the current leaders move out of the area to attend university.
“Social media is a really big thing right now, and we’re working to be more active on our social platforms, creating content that spreads our message.”
Girl Up Norwich is proof that age isn’t a barrier to making change - they have things they’re passionate about, things that they want to see happen. They’re not waiting for someone else to take the initiative, not waiting for an adult to give them the go ahead. They’ve created a platform that gets their voices heard, and they’re shouting loud about what they believe in.
Maud’s advice to all young change-makers is to take opportunities - sign up for everything that you can and see where it takes you. She uses a website called www.youthop.com to find fully funded opportunities for young people.
All quotes provided by Maud Webster, co-founder of Girl Up Norwich.
Want to find out more about what Girl Up Norwich get up to? Find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @girlupnorwich