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Now let us go then

About the author

Mia MacDonald is the executive director of Brighter Green, a New York-based public policy action tank working to raise awareness and encourage dialogue on and attention to issues that span the environment, animals, and sustainable development both globally and locally.

Travel. A global conference. Anticipation. Expectation. The prospect of exhilaration. Enervation, too: all those preparations - organizing clothes for packing, making sure all the email is answered, readying a plan for how household tasks get completed while I’m away. It’s all of that, but expectation wins out. What will I learn? What might I experience? What extraordinary women will I meet for the first time, or meet again, sometimes at a distance of many years? What will be the priorities of younger leaders, whose voices haven’t been heard as much as they should have? What will older leaders, the veterans of multiple struggles - many ongoing, bracingly difficult even today - share? How will I hear their words? And how will I change as a result?

As I prepare to travel to Antigua, Guatemala, a place I’ve never been, for the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s conference, 'Women Redefining Democracy for Peace, Justice and Equality', I first think back. Nearly fifteen years ago, all those years younger, I journeyed to Beijing, for the United Nations’ fourth global conference on women. Women were there to redefine not only the world’s development agenda, not only human rights and equity, not only peace, but, it seemed, the world itself. They organized events - talks, marches, tribunals. They lobbied government delegates. They spoke to the media, and educated them, including when the journalists really didn’t want to listen and thought they knew what women wanted and what they meant, without asking further. Perhaps most importantly, they spoke to each other. They engaged and included each other, cajoled and supported each other, lauded and yes, at times, critiqued each other.

The result was, at least to me, a single voice from Beijing, full of mettle and determination, the voice of the billions of the world’s women. And along with that were multiple voices: passionate, clear, focused, angry, remorseful, soft, loud, hopeful and wary, too. It’s these voices that in the intervening years I’ve sought to continue hearing, sought to continue learning from and sought to continue drawing from to create my own voice. It’s these voices that will be heard in Antigua. It’s going to be a noisy, polyglot, jangled, jubilant, resonant few days...

This concept of voice, who has it and who doesn’t, also preoccupies me as I get ready to travel to Guatemala. Fifteen years after Beijing, too many women (as well as quite a few men) aren’t heard, don’t speak, but have much to say. Earlier this week I attended a briefing in a United Nations conference room on the first phase of a girls’ education, leadership and rights training initiative that’s been launched with ten Maasai girls in the East African nations of Kenya and Tanzania. My organization, Brighter Green, based in New York City, has partnered with another U.S.-based NGO and three indigenous-led groups to get the effort off the ground. The girls, needy and bright, are settling in to boarding schools in Kenya. Our idea is to support them, not only through secondary school, but through post-graduate education or training as well - eight or so years. Along the way, they’ll be mentored by our colleagues in Kenya and Tanzania; will attend workshops on indigenous rights, women’s rights, youth rights, and the environment organized for them; and they will, in time, participate in national, regional and global meetings on indigenous peoples and issues, including at the UN.

The goal: support them to become leaders who can work skilfully at local, national and global levels. To become strong women, to lead themselves and others, to help secure a future for themselves and their communities in the context of a fast-changing climate that already is scrambling weather patterns, livelihoods and life options for these girls and their families. When drought hits and livestock die, household poverty intensifies. Girls - including some participating in this new program - are at risk of being pulled out of school (the fees out of reach) and married off, usually to an older man who can offer livestock (the bride price) in return. Right now, they have little voice. But that will change. They’ve completed their first term in their new schools. Most have done well in their exams. We hear they aren’t homesick.

In fact, several chose to stay in Nairobi during the term break. They were housed, mentored and urged to read and study by one of our partners, Lucy Mulenkei, founder and director of the Indigenous Information Network in Kenya. Lucy has a voice, soft, but very strong. The girls, too, will have a voice, with a timbre all its own. When I’m in Guatemala I’ll be wondering about the sound of those voices, their development, the confidence that can grow in the tone and manner, in the volume. And I’ll be listening carefully throughout the conference to voices soft and loud, in languages I understand and those I don’t, to really hear what’s said and how it’s said, to imbibe the substance and the power with a view to sharing how democracy, and voice itself, are redefined.


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