Saturday's conversation: International Day of the Girl

As leaders of Atlanta-based organizations dedicated to human rights around the globe, we often have the privilege of speaking to inspiring young people seemingly ready to lead the world. Of course, many of them are girls. We find ourselves thinking, “Wow, she might just grow up to be the next Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Eleanor Roosevelt.”

But we have to confess that this sentiment is not quite right. The reality is that we don’t have to wait for anyone to grow up. Those hoped-for leaders are already here. Girls, after all, are helping transform their communities around the world, whether you’re talking about the fight against human trafficking in Atlanta or the struggle for girls’ education in Pakistan. That’s why countries around the world today will recognize International Day of the Girl.

Strong girls’ leadership is nothing new. Few people know that Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old, was actually the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., nine months before Rosa Parks’ more publicized arrest. Civil rights leaders threw the spotlight on Parks’ courageous act of defiance instead. Even so, Colvin was one of five people included in the federal court cases challenging bus segregation. And three days after her compelling testimony, the Supreme Court struck down bus segregation in Alabama.

A generation later and half a world away, in the Mathare slums of Kenya, young Peninah Nthenya Musyimi led not by sitting, but walking. Her family could not afford to send her to secondary school. Nthenya pleaded with school after school for a chance to pursue her dream of being a “lawyer for the slum people.” Nthenya finally found a scholarship — nine miles away.

As Nthenya walked to school, other girls watched. She graduated, something no one could remember any girl from Mathare ever doing. These days, Nthenya heads up girls’ sports and leadership programs in some of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. And yes, she is an attorney. But Nthenya was a leader long before she earned that law degree.

Unfortunately, the courage and accomplishments of girls often go without much notice. Our organizations are trying to change that. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights has several exhibitions dedicated to young female leaders, including Colvin and her brave act that day in 1955. CARE, meanwhile, gave Nthenya the poverty-fighting organization’s top award in 2011.

On International Day of the Girl, we will honor girl leadership at a special summit in Atlanta presented by CARE, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and 32 organizations that are members of the Center’s Women and Girls Collaborative. The program features, among others, an anti-human trafficking crusader who is a senior at the Atlanta Girls’ School, and a 14-year-old eco-designer and entrepreneur who started her first company at age 8.

Together, we’ll have the opportunity to step up to the podium and see all those eager faces. Only we won’t just implore the girls to grow into great leaders. We’ll thank them for the leadership they already provide.

Dr. Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of the poverty-fighting organization CARE. Deborah J. Richardson is executive vice president of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights.