New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent a special message to two Dubai school students Image Credit: AP

When two Dubai school students, Anoushka Kapur and Nida Sultan Khan, decided to start up a UAE-based branch of the United Nations campaign for female empowerment known as Girl Up, they had big goals in mind.

“We wanted to provide a platform for students to openly speak about the various biases that women have to face all around the world, to start conversations surrounding topics that are otherwise considered taboo, and to make people aware of the various areas in which men and women are still not treated equally,” say the 17-year-olds, who are currently studying for their A-levels at GEMS Modern Academy (GMA) in Dubai.

But, even with their ambitious scope, they were not really expecting to hear back from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when they contacted her to ask for some advice during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Ms Ardern has always been a lady who has inspired us, and her leadership par excellence during these difficult times has been nothing short of awe-inspiring,” say Anoushka and Nida. “We reached out to her hoping that she would have some insight to share with us and our team at Girl Up GMA. However, we knew that the probability of the Prime Minister of New Zealand getting back to us was not very high.”

After numerous messages and emails, the students got a big surprise one morning when their dreams came true and they finally received a mail from her office. “Her team wrote back to us informing us that Mrs Ardern would be unable to chat with us as she was busy, but they sent us a video that she had recorded about leadership.”

Showing Jacinda Ardern talking directly to the camera while sitting in her office, the inspirational video shows the New Zealand prime minister speaking about how young people can often overlook their own intrinsic leadership qualities, and encouraging them to go out there and look out for opportunities to lead.

Anoushka and Nida say they were extremely grateful to have received the video. “To us it is a symbol of hope and reassurance that if we continue to work towards our goals consistently and passionately, there is no limit to the heights we can reach. We were inspired to continue spreading awareness about the issues we strongly believe in whether we get any form of appreciation or recognition from it or not because that is the hallmark of a true leader. The line that touched us the most was when Mrs Ardern said, 'Who knows? Maybe one day, you might become Prime Minister.’”

Anoushka Kapur
17-year-old Anoushka Kapur is one of the co-founders of Girl Up GMA and is studying for her final year of IB

What is Girl Up GMA?

Girl Up is a campaign of the United Nations Foundation, created in 2010 to support the work of the UN in empowering girls all over the world.

A Girl Up Club is a group of dedicated youth who have joined together with the common commitment to change the lives of girls and inspire people around them to take action.

Anoushka and Nida approached the senior leadership team at their school, GEMS Modern Academy, and were given permission to form a GMA branch of this club. “As of now we have about 40 students who are a part of the club who work in four different teams. We bring out an e-magazine every month and also post two podcasts on our YouTube channel. Our first podcast series is called ‘Sheroes’ where we speak to inspirational women and girls who are shattering gender stereotypes and making significant contributions to society. Our second podcast series is ‘Modern Girls’ where we speak to inspirational girls in our school community who have excelled in various fields. Through these podcasts we aim to inspire our viewers to go out and achieve their dreams irrespective of where they are at present.”

They also post regular articles on their Instagram account @Girlupgma, beautifully designed by their graphic design team member Manaal Musaliar, and release a magazine called ‘Artemisia’, featuring articles, poetry and artwork contributed by students. “The team in charge of Girl Up’s magazine also makes sure to include a few fun segments as well. This is how the club functions as a whole, with various teams doing their own parts to keep the campaign running.”

Raising awareness about uncomfortable topics

Part of the Girl Up mission is to shed light on important subjects that aren’t often talked about and, from period poverty to maternal mortality, rape culture and toxic masculinity, the team has already tackled a range of gritty issues since they launched the platform in June 2020. “We hope to be able to start conversations surrounding topics that are otherwise considered to be taboo, as well as make our followers and student community aware of the various areas in which men and women are still not treated equally, and ways in which we can help bridge the existing gap in these fields,” say Anoushka and Nida. They believe that the UAE is the perfect country in which to do this. “Women empowerment is strongly promoted in the UAE and we hope to create veritable change with the support of our forward-thinking community here.”

However, although the thrust of their movement is feminist, this doesn’t mean that the boys at their school are left out. “Quite a sizeable number of our members and contributors are boys. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how gender inequality and stereotypes adversely affect men too – toxic masculinity, the patriarchy, “boys don’t cry”, ‘lad’ culture – are all equally as harmful to men as they are to women. So, it was very important to us to ensure that they’re also active proponents of this campaign and that they too have a platform to talk about issues like these.”

Another aspect of male involvement was allyship, they add. “We wanted our male peers to acknowledge their male privilege instead of denying it. Only when you acknowledge that a disparity exists between two parties, can you work towards bridging that gap and use your privilege to boost the other group up. We want all our boys, and any boy who reads about this campaign, to say, 'Yes, I am privileged. But if I’m in a better position than my female counterparts, then I will do all that I can to support them and hoist them up to a level of equality with myself. I will educate myself about the issues that girls face instead of simply ignoring them because they don’t affect me. I will be empathetic and stand beside them in their fight for equality. All in all, I will be a good ally.’”

Going back to school in a pandemic

Lockdown was a mixed bag for Anoushka and Nida, who say that the extra time it afforded them enabled them to start up Girl Up GMA in the first place, although they were sad to miss out on all of the social opportunities that would have been happening in regular times.

The students say that returning to school during the pandemic has also had its ups and downs. “Going to half-empty classes, standing two meters apart from our friends, wearing a mask all day – it’s nothing like we’d ever imagined. But we’re glad for the chance to meet our friends and teachers face-to-face again and we’re fortunate to have a safe learning environment for in-person learning. And our school community is just as vibrant as ever – we’ve been having most of our social and cultural events as scheduled, albeit with a COVID-19 twist.”

Nida Sultan Khan
17-year-old Nida Sultan Khan is a co-founder of Girl Up GMA and is studying for the ISC exams

The girls counts themselves lucky to have been based in the UAE during the COVID crisis: “We’re very lucky to live in the country that we do with an educational body that went over and above to ensure the continuation of education for all students even during the pandemic. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority made sure that we could learn remotely and worked to expedite the opening of schools with all safety precautions taken.”

But, with typical perspective, they’re also keen to point out that not all students across the world are able to say the same: “Many students have faced disruption in their learning, and as with many global issues today, marginalized and disadvantaged groups stand the most to lose. Girls’ education has already been a long-standing issue, with there existing a huge discrepancy between male and female literacy rates. We fear that the closure of schools may result in girls being permanently taken out of school due to financial issues that poorer families may face as a result of the pandemic, as well as expose young girls to higher levels of domestic violence in some of the world’s least developed countries. COIVD-19 must not become a setback in the movement for girls’ education, and therefore it’s one issue that’s become even more important today.”

In the midst of a global pandemic, with many countries across the world entering a second lockdown, it would be easy to feel despondent about where our planet is heading. But talking to the passionate, intelligent, driven students from the Girl Up GMA team, it’ impossible not to feel great optimism for our young people’s future and the lessons they can teach us. “On this journey with Girl Up GMA, we’ve already learnt about issues that we’d never even thought of,” says Anoushka and Nida. “We often have hidden biases and regressive beliefs embedded deep within us and educating ourselves can often help bring these to the forefront. It’s difficult to unlearn some of the ideas that we’ve been brought up with, but if any of those ideas are discriminatory or damaging in nature, we need to make a conscious effort to discard those ideas and learn what is right.”