Each year, a crowd of teachers meets for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario annual women’s leadership conference.

This year, Because I am a Girl hosted three sessions – one about empowering girls for global change, another about bullying, and a third featuring videos from our very own Speaker’s Bureau

One of our girls’ rights heroes, human rights activist and author, Sally Armstrong, spoke at the conference as well. We were lucky enough to catch up with her to ask a few questions about girls’ rights, her new book, and how to be an activist.

You were invited to be a keynote speaker at the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) on Friday. What did you speak about?

The ETFO conference – speaking to a room full of enthusiastic, energetic young women who are committed to issues that shape the future for girls was exhilarating. I talked about my new book called Ascent of Women and told some of the stories in the book.

One was about the new organization in Afghanistan called Young Women for Change. This is a dynamic group of young women and young men who are trying to reshape the emotional landscape of Afghanistan. They say sixty-seven percent of the population of Afghanistan is under the age of 30. They say, “We never started a war. We never fought a war. We hate these old customs that hurt women and girls. We want change and we have the tools to make change – Facebook, Twitter, blogging.”

Another story I told was about 169 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 who are suing the government of Kenya for failing to protect them from being raped. Everyone says they’ll win and when they do, they’ll alter the status of women and girls in Kenya and maybe all of Africa.

You were speaking to a crowd of teachers – how are peace and girls’ education linked?

Peace and girls education: they are well linked. In Afghanistan for example, the women refer to their illiteracy as being blind. When I asked why they use that description, one said, “I couldn’t read so I couldn’t see what was going on.” In fewer than a dozen words she explained why the thugs in power keep education from the people – so they can’t see what’s going on.

Your new book, Ascent of Women (coming out next month) talks about having control over our own bodies as the “final frontier for women”. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

The final frontier for women is having control over their own bodies. “I only tapped her – you can’t call that hitting.” “She’s my wife, I can have sex with her whenever I want.” These are still common responses from men who think they own women’s bodies. What’s more, rape continues as a tool of war, a weapon to oppress women and a power play by men. The difference today is women in Asia and Africa and the Americas are having a conversation they dared not have before. They’re challenging laws and cultural norms and religious doctrine in order to strip away the misogyny and take control of their bodies.

Can you share a favourite story of one of the girls in your new book?

I have so many “favourite” stories about the girls I have interviewed for my new book. Their stories play on the back of my eyelids. One recent one is the story of Alaina Podmorow, a 16 year old girl from Lake Country, BC, who decided at the age of nine to do something about what was happening to kids her age in Afghanistan. She’s the quintessential Canadian girl – flying down a soccer field toward the goal with victory in her eyes, cruising down a mountain on her snowboard, singing like a rock star at a high school event – but she is also determined to work for change. She went to Afghanistan last fall, linked arms with Young Women for Change and said, “We’re the generation of change. We have a new viewpoint and we’re going to change the world.”

You’re an inspiration to girls and women (and boys and men, too) who are working towards gender equality. Do you have any tips about how just one person can make an impact?

One of the easiest and most effective ways to make change is to use your own voice. By simply saying, “That’s not okay with me,” you are stopping a lot of people in their tracks. All too often we let people get away with saying things that are untrue, mean, rude and trouble making. By challenging their words – you make it clear that it’s important to tell the truth, to be fair, to work toward a better tomorrow. 

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