KWA-ZULU NATAL, South Africa — In an interview with The Borgen Project, Laryssa Coe describes her journey leading a GirlUp club in Recife, Brazil. GirlUp is a United Nations-affiliated organization advancing women’s rights in Brazil and around the world. Read on to discover how its decentralized approach fosters leadership and awareness in a new generation.
Women’s Rights in Brazil: An Overview
Women’s rights in Brazil have made significant advances since the Latin American country ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1984. However, the movement still has a long way to go. Only 15% of parliamentarians are women, and the World Bank estimates that women spend more than twice as much time on domestic tasks compared to men. Furthermore, a mere third of 2017’s STEM graduates were women, underscoring the importance of achieving equality for young women, too.
The GirlUp Approach: Insights From a Former Leader
Founded in 2010 by the United Nations Foundation, GirlUp plays a pivotal role in advocating for women’s rights in Brazil, especially among girls between 13 and 24. The organization is active in 152 countries and all 50 US States, with 150 GirlUp clubs in Brazil alone. Its cause areas are diverse, ranging from gender justice, education and STEM to sexual and reproductive health and women in sports. Coe praises GirlUp’s inclusivity, highlighting that anybody with an internet connection can onboard via the Girlup website and become a GirlUp leader. A leader’s role involves recruiting enthusiastic young people to their club and holding regular meetings to discuss women’s history, current affairs and upcoming projects. “While educating others,” Coe says of her GirlUp leader journey “we were educating ourselves, too.”
Coe further describes the freedom GirlUp grants its leaders in realizing their clubs’ visions. Clubs have the choice to concentrate on a specific cause area – such as women in sports or STEM – or embrace broader themes. To foster efficiency, GirlUp encourages leaders to create roles and teams within their clubs. For example, Coe’s club had distinct media, campaign and content teams, all of which she oversaw as president.
GirlUp’s mission is to grow aspiring leaders through hands-on experience. There are many opportunities for club collaboration, especially within a given country or region. For example, Coe describes GirlUp summits where leaders come together to plan upcoming campaigns. GirlUp also offers funding for clubs to reach their goals and advice to leaders in challenging situations.
Reflecting on how GirlUp changed her outlook, Coe explains, “I saw myself as a citizen of the world, yes, but I didn’t specifically see myself as a woman of the world.”
Period Poverty: A Case Study
In 2021, a staggering 713,000 Brazilian girls did not have a bathroom or shower at home, while over 4 million lacked the facilities to manage their period at school. Despite this, the government continues to tax sanitary items as a luxury, not necessary goods, meaning over a third of the price of pads and tampons is tax.
Unable to access the facilities or hygiene products they need, 43% of menstruating Latin American students miss school during their periods. Period poverty forces women to stay home from work or school, silently undermining their rights. Coe explains, “I didn’t know this was an issue because I always had money to buy pads… But some people can’t have their periods or they will lose work… they will miss class, and this will fail them at the end of the year… How can you have women fighting if they don’t even have the basic necessities?”
In July 2021, Coe and her fellow GirlUp members in Recife ignited a provide essential goods to those who need them. Partnering with a food distribution charity, they distributed sanitary products to 60 impoverished families. Coe’s club catalyzed change at a higher level, too, influencing the mayor and helping forward a government initiative to donate $300,000 in pads to public schools.
Global Empowerment: One Leader at a Time
In closing, Coe shares, “Before, I would just accept some of the stuff that men would say to me. I thought it was just part of how society works. I never questioned it. GirlUp really opened my eyes to question stuff, especially as a South American girl… I would say I got stronger by knowing what I want and actually speaking up for it… I learned what it is to be a girl in society, and GirlUp opened my eyes to be more empathetic with others.”
Period poverty is just one of dozens of cause areas in which GirlUp’s members have had an impact. The organization is garnering awareness for women’s rights in Brazil and around the world, giving young women the tools they need to empower themselves and those around them. So far, 200,000 girls around the world have been involved in or impacted by GirlUp’s work. One can only imagine what it will achieve next.
– Faye Crawford