Many of us can’t begin to imagine speaking or performing in front of hundreds of people, let alone in front of a group of important political figures. But that’s exactly what junior Aasha Shaik had the opportunity to do when she was chosen to take part in the United Nations’ Girls Speak Out event on October 10.
The event was held in honor of the UN’s International Day of the Girl, a day set aside to recognize and commemorate girls’ contributions and challenges in the modern world. Along with nine other girls, Shaik spoke at the United Nations in New York City about difficulties that girls around the world face today, such as the gender gap, eating disorders, abuse, and child marriage.
The opportunity arose from a contest in the summer of 2014. Girls from 20 different countries submitted their pieces, and the final speakers were chosen through a writing contest and performance auditions. An extensive rehearsal process ensued, involving practice sessions in New York City two or three days a week. Shaik had learned about the event online, and her personal experiences motivated her to write and submit her piece.
Shaik moved to India after seventh grade, and while living there for a year, she witnessed the everyday hardships that girls face. “My interest in supporting these causes has always been there, but especially seeing things like the gender-gap firsthand in a developing country like India made it more of an important issue for me than it was before,” Shaik said. Her piece addressed the contest prompt asking girls to describe what it means to be a girl where they live. “My piece was about my experiences in both the U.S. and India, but my message was that those things don’t define what it is to be a girl. It’s whoever you want yourself to be.”
Shaik and the other girls not only read out their pieces at the event but also performed during each other’s speeches. “I was really excited for the whole event,” Shaik said. “When I was auditioning for it, I didn’t know the director’s vision for the event. In my mind, I just thought ‘Oh, are we just going to be reading out these stories?’ but then as we went through rehearsals and added movement, we really saw these girls’ stories come to life.” Shaik also wrote and composed the theme song for the event and performed it with a few fellow speakers.
Through the preparation for the event, Shaik was able to meet and connect with inspiring female peers. “When you’re sitting in a room and putting together these pieces about deep issues like rape and eating disorders and self-harm, you get so close so fast. I met such an amazing group of girls, and though I may not see them again, it was a great experience just getting to know them,” she said.
The event was truly affecting and emotional for all. Deputy executive director of UNICEF Geeta Rao Gupta had pre-written a speech for the event, but the emotions evoked from the girls’ stories led her to scrap it. Instead, on the verge of tears, she told the girls that listening to these stories made her both happy and sad; sad because when she was 16 years old, she was going through the exact same things, and happy because now these stories are finally being told.
“It was heartbreaking, but it was also one of the best parts of the experience for me, because it made me realize why we are doing this,” Shaik said. “I learned about how much of a voice you can actually have, and just seeing the impact that the event had was so cool.”