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Youth can learn the power to make a difference

January 13, 2012|By Elaine Murphy

In late November and early December, I attended the two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. I was selected to represent the Girl Scouts of the USA as part of a youth delegation for the World Assn. of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.

I was the only American youth delegate in a team of 17 young women from 13 countries. As a Girl Scout delegation, our focus was on the relationship between gender and environmental issues, as well as promoting nonformal environmental education.

The marginalization of women, particularly in developing countries, means that they usually receive a smaller share of food and resources than male family members. Women are expected to collect water and harvest crops — tasks whose difficulty is exacerbated when a drought dries up the nearest stream. It forces them to walk greater distances along often dangerous paths and farther away from getting an education.

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The delegation believes that, by implementing informal education programs — education that has a curriculum and goals, but is taught in outside organizations, such as Girl Scouts, instead of in schools — girls and youth can be empowered to become agents of change in their communities.

At an event, Beatrice, a Kenyan member of our delegation, gave a speech emphasizing the need to look past the fact that African youth are victims of climate change. Beatrice characterized herself and African youth as agents of change as she described the tree-planting project she was working on with her Girl Guides in Kenya. She said she was educating girls about taking environmental action.

After hearing her emotionally charged speech, the reality of her story struck me. I realized that climate change affects everyone.

To voice our opinions about climate change and inspire other people to act, the delegation choreographed and performed an environment-themed version of the cha cha slide. As our allotted time slot approached, I didn't know if anyone would pay attention to us; we were just a small group of young people dancing in an open, outdoor area under the blazing African sun.

I was surprised by what happened next: We started dancing, and negotiators filed by — they had to pass us on their route from the convention center to the exhibition area — and some of them stopped to watch. We kept dancing, and the people walking by turned into a steady stream of spectators, many of them taking time out of their day to watch us.

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