Hearing the stories of girls like us, both in the past and around us today, who have made their mark on the world, is inspiration for our future. No matter how big or small the difference is, we are never too young to effect change by simply standing up for what we believe in.
Speaking up for what matters can lead to both big and small change, and both are as important as the other. There are girls who have overcome adverse situations and have used their experience to put an end to the injustice they suffered for others like them.
There are girls who stood up for what they believed in at times when it wasn’t safe to do so. But similarly, there are also inspiring girls who simply believed in using their knowledge and compassion for the world to make a change, however big or small.
Reading about the experiences of girls around the world who have been making change really emphasizes that making your mark on the world can be as simple as ensuring your family recycles in the right way, or as serious as defying an oppressive system.
But the first step is always the desire to stand up for what you believe in.
Yusra Mardini – swimmer for the Refugee Olympic Team
When Yusra was 18-years-old she was selected for and swam in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. The team was made up of refugee athletes from over ten countries, with training taking part in over 13 countries
The year before, 2015, Yusra and her sister were forced to flee their home after it was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War. Travelling through Lebanon and Turkey, the sisters arranged to be smuggled across to Greece in a dinghy.
In the middle of their journey across the sea, the dinghy’s motor cut out, overcrowded by refugees. The Mardini sisters, and others who could swim, pulled the boat for over three and a half hours to get to safety.
Yusra now lives in Germany. As well as competing in the Olympics, she has been appointed as the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency, advocating for other forcibly displaced people around the world.
Yusra has said that her goal is to inspire other young refugees, showing them they have the opportunity to thrive, not just survive. She often talks about the difficulty of the refugee experience not ending when safety is reached, but that the loss of home, nationality and identity for displaced people is just as hard.
Jazz Jennings – LGBTQ rights activist and YouTube personality
Not only did this moment became a milestone moment for trans visibility in the media, but it also made her the youngest transgender person to share their story publicly.
In 2015, Jazz launched ‘I Am Jazz’, a reality TV series documenting her life with friends, school, sports and dating. The show was ground-breaking; teaching a very broad audience what it means to be a trans girl growing up.
Other girls going through a similar thing have said it was invaluable as a way of feeling connected to someone experiencing the same thing, but also as a resource to help conversations and understanding the experience for family and friends around them.
Now 21 and about to go to Harvard University, Jazz has founded the TransKids purple Rainbow Foundation, written a book and created a YouTube series dedicated to educating the world on what it means to be a transgender youth.
Jazz Jennings changed the world for transgender youth simply by being who she was and advocating for herself.
Amika George – period poverty advocate
At 17, Amika ran a successful Free Periods campaign for free sanitary products in schools. The campaign started Free Periods after she read a headline on the news about how girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford to buy period products.
Motivated to change this, she promoted her campaign with petitions, demonstrations, period celebrations and social media campaigns.
She realised that while there may not have been any interest from those in charge, she was getting floods of messages and support from people who believed in her cause. This support and her perseverance finally led to the Department of Education committing to fund free period products in schools in January 2020.
She has since written a book entitled, ‘Make it Happen’, about how to get involved in politics from the grassroots.
Amika relates to the anxiety younger generations feel about tackling issues of climate change and global inequality, which threaten their future. She has written a book attempting to break down this huge task into actionable steps.
She says of her Free Periods campaign: “I started my campaign before I could even vote, and I think that’s a testament to the fact that, actually, you can achieve change as somebody who is not represented in politics”.
Sophie Scholl – anti-Nazi political activist
Sophie Scholl first joined the female arm of the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, like all other young people in Germany at the time. However, quickly she and her brothers began to disagree with and oppose the ideals being taught to them by the Nazi Party.
With some other students, Sophie formed a resistance group calling themselves, the White Rose.
The White Rose published and distributed thousands of pamphlets all over Germany, spreading Anti-Nazi information and encouraging people to join the resistance. They often gave advice about how to resist and sabotage Hitler’s war machine.
By 1943, it appeared their activism was working. As the tide was turning against the Allied Forces in the war, the White Rose set up connections with multiple other underground resistance groups, strengthening their influence. But in February of that same year a janitor at her university saw Sophie distributing pamphlets and reported her to the Gestapo, who arrested and eventually executed her and her brother.
In July of 1943, one of the White Rose’s pamphlets was smuggled into the UK, where they were reprinted and dropped all over Germany by Allied planes. Even though Sophie paid the ultimate price for her actions, her story is recounted to remind us of the importance of fighting for our beliefs.
Malala Yousafzai – human rights activist
Malala is a human rights and women’s education activist from north-western Pakistan. In 2012, at 15-years-old, Malala was shot by the Taliban on her school bus for publicly opposing their strict rules on girls’ right to education.
She had been blogging and writing about her experiences during the Taliban’s growing control of the region. Malala was taken to Birmingham for surgery, where she has remained since, studying and advocating for female education worldwide.
Nine months after the shooting, Malala spoke at the United Nations urging world leaders to change their policies on education and women’s rights.
She has since set up the Malala Fund with her father, to ensure the rights of every girl to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. In 2014 she became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a global symbol of peaceful protest.
In 2020 she graduated from Oxford University having completed a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
Belen Perugachi – 16-year-old councillor in Ecuador
This was in effort to support the local women and their families whose livelihoods relied on agriculture and livestock.
Belen started her advocacy by fighting for indigenous rights at just 12-years-old, joining the Children and Adolescents Group of her area. Today she is the youngest member of the Rights Protection Council of Cayambe Municipality.
Belen is dedicated to preserving local tradition among the younger generations. She has made it her mission to set an example for other indigenous girls around Latin America, so they can stand up for their rights and be proud of their traditions too.
She has said that “(she) wants(s) people in rural areas to have the same opportunities as people in cities”.
Katie Stagliano – food poverty advocate
The cabbage started as a tiny seedling, which Kate tended to and cared for until it reached the whopping 40 pounds. She was hugely moved by the impact just one cabbage made, so she started Katies Krops.
The organisation works to empower young people to sustainably start and maintain vegetable gardens to help feed people in need. The organisation now has over 100 youth based gardens in the US.
During the pandemic, Katie’s Krops organised delivery meals instead of their usual support of in-person dinners at local food centres.
Katie’s goals is to combat hunger through volunteer gardening, vegetable donation and by educating young growers on the tools needed to maintain a successful, sustainable and environmentally-friendly garden.
Her message is very clear: it doesn’t take much to start making a difference, just a simple seedling and some careful determination!
Gitanjali Rao – scientist
A build-up of lead in the body can be extremely harmful, which is why the lead levels in drinking water are carefully regulated. Gitanjali was moved to look into creating the device after hearing about the Flint water crisis in Michigan, where water was being contaminated.
The crucial element of her device is that it is faster and more inexpensive than any other lead detecting techniques. Making it a viable option for communities affected by lead contamination.
Gitanjali has gone on to hold TEDx talks, and has been awarded multiple prizes, such as the President’s Environmental Youth Award.
She has spoken at length about her desire to encourage other young people to pursue their interests in STEM and innovation to make a difference in the world.
Azekel Axelle Nasah – LGBTQ+ activist
In 2020, they established The Black Trans Foundation, a non-profit organisation fighting for the equal access to opportunities and healthcare for Black trans and gender-nonconforming people.
Their work is specifically focused on access to free therapy for those with marginalised identities. They also lead the QTIPOC Leeds group, which won them the Positive Impact Award from the University of Leeds.
Most recently, they set up a Community Interest Company for Black trans people.
Azekel says, the aim of their work is to ‘build new worlds where the societal structures that uphold ableism, transphobia, and white supremacy have no power’.
Melati and Isabel Wijsen – climate activists
They were inspired to launch the campaign after Melati got out from a swim in the ocean one day with a plastic bag wrapped around her arm. Their campaign was successful in 2018 when the government in Bali banned Styrofoam, plastic bags and straws from the island.
Both girls have since gone on to speak at TEDx conventions, the United Nations World Ocean Day, the World Economic Forum and more.
Having been inspired by other young people they had learned about in school, Melati has since founded Youthtopia, a platform aimed to empower young people to make a change.
An overarching theme among these stories is how many of these girls, after taking their stand, have gone on to create platforms, reaching out to empower other young people to make a change.
Whether through writing books, establishing organisations, or simply through their general advocacy, the majority of these girls have made huge efforts to ensure that other girls have the power to raise their voices too.
Each one of them believes in the importance of making activism accessible to all young people, as well as the strength of confident young voices on the global stage.
Written and researched by Arianna Rangoni Robertson, Fundraising and Communications Assistant
*Non-binary people Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) are not girls or women. We have chosen to include Azekel Axelle Nasah in this list for the work they have done for Black women, but also because our groups include non-binary AFAB children who still feel safest in spaces dominated by girls and women, and we wish for them to be able to see themselves in this list of powerful young people.