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Girl Up Campaign Helps Teens Empower Peers Around the Globe

August 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign, is helping adolescent American girls make a difference in the lives of peers around the globe. Ray Suarez reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a story about adolescent Americans making a difference in the lives of girls around the globe.

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: The flashing lights outside say Chicago, but the girls inside are learning about the heavy burden of life a world away.

WOMAN: So, these are jerry cans. And, in Ethiopia, girls have to walk to get water. And they get very heavy. So, you want to try it and see how heavy they are?

RAY SUAREZ: The lesson isn’t easy, but that’s the point.

GIRL: Oh, it’s hard.

RAY SUAREZ: A new United Nations Foundation campaign is spanning cultures and continents to promote girl power.

Tamara Kreinin is from the U.N. Foundation.

TAMARA KREININ, United Nations Foundation: Girls in Ethiopia might carry water for eight hours a day. They might walk eight hours to get water to bring back to their family. They might walk eight hours to get fuel for firewood and cooking.

And that’s the reality of their lives. So, we want girls in the United States to carry those water jugs, get a sense of how heavy they are. They get a sense of these girls’ lives.

GIRL: One, two, three.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a campaign by girls and for girls called Girl Up. The idea is to build grassroots support among American teens and tweens to help peers in developing countries stay in school, stay free from child labor, and safe from violence.

DORY GANNES, Girl Up, United Nations Foundation: If we educate one girl, she educates her community. If we inspire one girl with Girl Up, she inspires her community to get involved.

RAY SUAREZ: Less than one-year-old, the girl movement caught the attention of first lady Michelle Obama, who recently invited Girl Up girls to the White House.

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: All right, you guys keep it up.

TAMARA KREININ: If we get millions of girls around this country engaged, pretty soon, we hope they’re going to be the next generation of women leaders.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, 200,000 girls across the U.S. have signed up. And almost all the money they have raised is already helping to fund U.N. programs for girls in Liberia, Ethiopia, Malawi and Guatemala.

TAMARA KREININ: Most of them live in abject poverty. They’re lacking in education. Many of those girls don’t learn how to read. They don’t how to write or do their numbers. And, oftentimes, they’re married by age 15 and then pregnant soon after.

RAY SUAREZ: On this day in Chicago, Project Girl performers tackled Girl Up’s most recent effort: to stop child marriages.

EMILY RUPP, Project Girl Collective: The United Nations considers child marriage a violation of human rights.

RAY SUAREZ: Emily Rupp wrote a piece based on phone interviews about a 14-year-old girl from Africa who was forced into marriage and pregnancy, who then died in childbirth.

EMILY RUPP: His poison had flourished. And my body was changing. I grew big and round while my husband was nowhere to be found.

These women in other countries are literally left by themselves and fending for themselves. And a lot of times, they don’t have the stamina and the strength to be able to make it.

TAMARA KREININ: For the girls in the United States, if they have a sense that they can really touch a girl in another country, it motivates them to learn more, to stay connected, and to raise more funds.

RAY SUAREZ: Girl Up encourages pen pals.

GIRL: You should never give up in what you believe in. I’m from Chicago. My name is Ashley.

WOMAN: She says you, all of you, are going to change the world.

RAY SUAREZ: The letters are read by Girl Up staff in Liberia, where 45 percent of girls have no formal education, a statistic the campaign is hoping to change.

Suburban Chicago residents and Girl Up member Isabella Solimene is one of the many volunteer advisers for the campaign.

ISABELLA SOLIMENE, Girl Up: I can be with other girls my age, and we can decide together how we can help. We can start a fund-raiser, do events to raise awareness.

RAY SUAREZ: And for Isabella, the movement is also very personal.

She’s a typical 12-year-old American girl, a competitive soccer player, and a good student entering the seventh grade. Isabella is also from Vietnam, adopted at the age of 4. Her Vietnamese mother gave birth to twin girls, couldn’t afford both and sent Isabella to an orphanage.

Isabella has never meant her identical twin sister, still living in Vietnam, named Ha.

ISABELLA SOLIMENE: I just wanted to help, not just her, but other adolescent girls around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Although Isabella has learned something about her identical twin, she believes she and her sister are likely to have very different futures.

ISABELLA SOLIMENE: There’s a huge difference between our lives. I go to school. I play with my friends. I hang out with my friends. She doesn’t get to hang with her friends. She gets to do chores. And she’s got to work 24/7. It’s not what a normal teenager would do.

RAY SUAREZ: Isabella hopes to attend UCLA Medical School and play college soccer.

TAMARA KREININ: It’s very similar girls. If they had the same opportunity, they’d probably have the same trajectory. They’d both be going to UCLA, both think about being doctors or having dreams. And then, sadly, the girl in Vietnam, you can’t get there. And we’d like to get all the girls globally to the same spot, to real — real success.

RAY SUAREZ: For the American girls, success for girls globally is a win for them, too.