marHaba! My name is Kate Stewart. I am currently a senior majoring in Global Studies and Political Science with a minor in Arabic Language & Culture. I have also been fortunate enough to have been the Arabic tutor since last fall. I am very excited to share a little about my experience over the summer as a Communications Intern for GirlForward in Chicago.
GirlForward is a non-profit based in Chicago and Austin dedicated to creating and enhancing opportunities for girls who have been displaced globally by conflict and persecution. GirlForward’s three core programs – Mentoring, Safe Spaces, and Education – support high school aged girls who are refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers and the organization focuses on providing girls with the tools she needs to chart her own path on her own terms.
Well over 100 million girls worldwide are out of school and do not have access to secondary education. And at GirlForward, girls who participate in its programs have on average only two years of formal schooling before being resettled in the U.S. Yet, they get placed into grades based on their age and not education level (and do not receive sufficient support in the general education system to reach the level they want to be at and gain the knowledge they seek).
Since the Taliban regained control of the Afghan government in 2021 and cracked down on access to education for girls, there has been an uptick in media coverage of girls’ education (or the lack thereof), especially in Muslim majority countries. The reasons for lack of education can include (but are not limited to) civil or military conflict, poverty, lack of educational resources and teachers at refugee camps, and institutionalized, cultural gender discrimination. But Western-centered media coverage often neglects to consider the diverse factors contributing to this humanitarian crisis. Instead, it focuses on religion as an inhibitor to education largely because the Taliban claims its policies are based on its strict interpretation of Islamic tradition. But Islam does not deny girls education. If anything, the Qur’an mandates the pursuit of knowledge from all Muslims (including females). It is the Taliban’s deeply rooted, patriarchal interpretation of cultural gender roles that denies girls education. And it is of great importance that this is recognized and understood by the international community as it puts pressures on regimes to update policies and invest in girls to the highest degree.
One phrase that I heard consistently while interning at GirlForward was “invest in girls”. This is a concept that I’ve seen appear in the missions of many other nonprofits, but many of these focus solely on immediate health, housing, and food needs. All of these are critical, but what I found special about GirlForward is that supports the immediate needs while also helping provide a space and resources for girls to explore and pursue their individual futures. Camp GirlForward and jOURneys: 10th Anniversary event stand out as clear experiences I had during my internship of GirlForward’s holistic investment in girls.
During the school year, GirlForward offers in-person and virtual tutoring in topics ranging from math and history to college applications and professional resumes along with the option for one-on-one mentorships with women within the local community. During the summer, participants can join Camp GirlForward which utilizes a literacy-based curriculum and explores themes like identity, power, and community through field trips and classroom instruction. I was able to join and connect with campers on a field trip to Lincoln Park Zoo. We practiced using public transit, talked about our favorite animals, and ate lunch and played games in the park. Girls from countries including Afghanistan, DR Congo, Myanmar, and Rwanda made up the community I was lucky to get a glimpse of.
This past year was GirlForward’s tenth anniversary and as the communications intern, I was able to play a role in planning and supporting at jOURneys, the anniversary fundraising event. I created promotional graphics, co-hosted an Instagram Live with staff members and our keynote speaker Isra Chaker, photographed an advocacy workshop by Isra for GirlForward participants, and was at the event to meet more amazing GirlForward girls and supports and hear testimonies from them and Isra highlighting the impact of this organization and investing in girls. The diverse collection of individuals present at the event made for lots of friendly conversations while eating samosas, laughter among girls, and fundraising to support GirlForward.
GirlForward would not exist without the girls that create it. The beauty and strength of the organization come from the passions and personalities brought by every one of the participants and the connections between them. Recognizing that allows for a deeper investment in girls. I am grateful for my time at GirlForward, encourage future students to consider it for their own internships, and encourage others to support the organization by volunteering to tutor, interpret, or donate. To learn more about investing in girls, visit www.girlforward.org or follow @girlforward on social media!