8 March 2022

As Chief Executive of the world’s largest voluntary movement dedicated to empowering girls and young women, I am a passionate believer in the power of education to create a better world. I don’t just mean education as we often think of it, of schools and universities and exams and targets, but also the power of values-based, non-formal education that nurtures and inspires girls to thrive as whole people. Creating a sustainable future for all will take not just our heads but also our hearts and our hands. And it will take all of us, yet we still live in a world where true gender equality has yet to be achieved in any country.

At the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, we believe in the power of girls, not as future leaders but as leaders today. For over 100 years, we have offered non-formal education opportunities for girls to develop their values and practise leadership with social purpose.

When a girl becomes a Girl Guide or Girl Scout, she joins a community of 10 million others in 152 countries. She develops the skills and knowledge she needs to raise her voice, defend her ideas and contribute to shaping a better world. Perhaps most importantly, she learns that there is strength in working with others, and that when you feel safe to be yourself, to take risks and make mistakes, you develop the resilience and agency not just to navigate a fast-changing and sometimes frightening world, but to thrive. Non-formal education provides the tools and values to do that.

Empowerment is a collective, as well as individual process. The values of volunteerism—solidarity, compassion and generosity—bring Girl Guide and Girl Scout communities together to create change. Together, they can draw on collective power at a magnitude they could not access as individuals due to the barriers girls and women often face in society.

Girls who experience leadership when they are young are more likely to feel confident taking the lead as they mature. How leadership is presented, experienced, modelled and discussed has a big impact on the extent to which girls can see themselves as leaders or recognise and tackle gender bias.

To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and, specifically, to ensure women’s full participation and equal opportunities in leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life (target 5.5), girls must have opportunities to practise purposeful leadership as they grow up. We see this in action when girls and young women take the lead in designing and delivering projects in their communities through Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting.

A volunteer facilitates a discussion on leadership traits at the WAGGGS flagship leadership event, the Juliette Low Seminar. Photo courtesy of WAGGGS

Every year, thousands of girls and young women around the world take part in programmes offered by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. These include Girl-led Action on Climate Change, our programme to Stop the Violence against women and girls, Lead Out Loud leadership and gender equality seminars, and the Free Being Me programme, which grows girls' self-esteem through body confidence education. Creating the space and opportunity for girls to identify the change they want to make and to shape the social action they will take after completing these programmes is at the core of our educational approach. For our movement, meaningful change is girl-led change.

It is not enough to put girls at the centre of everything we do. Our vision for Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting is a movement that is truly girl led, from the local to the global level, and we listen to girls at every opportunity.

What we are hearing today is that girls are growing up quickly in an uncertain world. They are anxious about their future as they witness global problems like climate change, social inequality, rising populism and a global pandemic changing their societies at a terrifying pace. And as digital natives, they rarely get the chance to look away.

When we consulted girls around the world in the development of Compass 2032, our vision for the 2020–2032 period, they identified the top challenges making it harder to be a girl today:

  • gender inequality
  • pressure to be someone you are not
  • feeling unsafe
  • lack of confidence and self-esteem.
The closing ceremony of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) flagship leadership event, the Juliette Low Seminar, hosted by the Thailand Girl Guides Association. Photo courtesy of WAGGGS

They are also driven by a strong sense of justice, resourced by technologies that connect the world and enable them to transcend national borders. And every day, more young people are standing up for what they believe in, challenging the status quo, speaking out and taking action to bring positive change to their local and global societies. When asked what kind of future they wanted for girls, the most common response was “equal”, perhaps best defined in this context as a world in which everyone has equal opportunities and benefits from equal treatment and support.

Eighty per cent of the girls we consulted think the world will be a better place for girls in 30 years’ time. However, when asked “what do you think the world will look like for girls and young women in your country in 2032”, many said they expected more extremism and corruption in politics (20 per cent), greater humanitarian crises and higher poverty rates (20 per cent), more serious environmental issues (38 per cent) and that gender inequality will remain the same or regress (50 per cent). The top issues they want to see addressed are environmental sustainability, equality, and greater peace and security. Sixty-two per cent of the girls surveyed think they have the power to pursue these complex goals, with Girl Guides and Girl Scouts citing their ability to influence and being a leader as the factors that give them confidence to address the issues that matter to them.

A sustainable future must be an equal future. The whole world faces growing instability, particularly as a result of climate change and increasing inequalities. Resolving these crises will require ingenuity, resilience and action from all of society, including girls and women as equal participants who are empowered at the grass-roots level to deliver change and engage as active global citizens.