It’s a fundamental human right for girls and women to live autonomous lives, building futures for themselves that reflect their innermost dreams and desires. But sweeping attacks on female agency—bodily, intellectually, and otherwise—from Afghanistan, to Iran, to the United States and beyond, deny girls and women their power and capacity to thrive. At Girl Up, an initiative founded by the United Nations Foundation, we advocate daily for girls and women to be able to lead full, self-determined lives—and we do so by training this generation of youth to advance the global movement for gender justice.

As of late, girls in Afghanistan are forbidden under order of the Taliban to attend public and private universities, following an edict last spring that kept children and young women from continuing their middle school and high school educations. The strict dress code enforced by Iran’s “morality police,” which launched massive, ongoing protests more than four months ago following the death of 22-year-old Jina “Mahsa” Amini, while in police custody, prevents girls and women from expressing their own individualism, religion, and cultural identities safely and authentically.

In India, rates of violence against girls and women, including rape, dowry deaths, and assaults, rose more than 26 percent over the past six years. And in Poland and the United States, girls, women, and all people capable of becoming pregnant have been stripped of the dignity to make the best decisions for themselves and their families after the dissolution of their right to obtain legal abortions.

Education. Freedom of expression. Gender-based violence. Abortion access. While each of these instances and measures target different rights, the motive is the same: to render girls and women ineffective and without the skills, resources, and knowledge of self to be capable and dynamic agents of social change.

Regimes and authoritarian institutions rely on keeping marginalized voices stifled; their existence depends upon maintaining the top-down order of control, and they fear the inherent power of oppressed people who have been denied their agency for so long and at such great costs.

For girls and women the world over, the fight for humanity and dignity is as alive as ever. But each new generation of young people exhibits greater urgency in dismantling oppressive institutions in favor of collectively building new, more inclusive systems centered in justice. Girl Up Afghanistan’s 500 Days of Oppression campaign, which chronicles how the rights of girls and women have been abolished under the Taliban; student leaders protesting the violent, heavy hand of Iranian authorities; Project Hifaazat, Girl Up Delhi’s year-long fundraiser to make strides to support and end violence against sex workers; and Girl Up’s Teen Advisor’s statement on the global state of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice are confirmation of this—and we stand in resolute solidarity with each of them on these issues.

Global gender justice is achievable, but it can’t happen if we don’t help prepare young people, like the leaders above, to step into their power and guide the movements that will drive equity, permanently. While Girl Up believes wholeheartedly that natural born leaders exist, we also know that every young person benefits from having the education, tools, and a global community of peers and supporters to inform and uplift their advocacy.

Indian girl rides a bicycle
An Indian girl rides a bicycle during sunset in Joypur village.
ARINDAM DEY/AFP via Getty Images

When girls and young women can’t go to school in Afghanistan or are looking for ways to eradicate sexual and intimate partner violence in India, the Girl Up Academy and our curriculum to end gender-based violence provide safe, virtual spaces for student leaders to learn valuable skills in organizing, advocacy, and building one’s self-confidence to create social change. Our curriculums aren’t meant to be a substitute for formal education—something that every person deserves—but it keeps youth actively learning and engaged while providing them with the tools to help dismantle the systems that confine them.

Denying girls and women their agency strategically relies upon their isolation, cutting them off from their peers and communities, which both threaten to validate their experiences and inspire their resistance. Through Girl Up’s online Community platform, available to our global network of more than 150,000 Club members and alumni worldwide, we provide an irreplaceable matrix of support to youth leaders, like those in India, Iran, Poland, the U.S., Afghanistan, and countless other countries, fighting for their bodily autonomy. Alongside resources, such as learning modules on storytelling for social change and fundraising, we’re imbuing girls and young women with skills in activism and leadership that they can put to use on the ground, immediately, wherever they might live.

Women and girls possess the eagerness and empathy for others to build an equitable future for all. But when they’re denied their humanity and autonomy, the world loses the strength, compassion, and insightfulness of their vision. The leaders of tomorrow, who will achieve gender justice for generations to come, are already here. They’re girls. And we will continue answering their call for knowledge, connections, and platforms that support them to rise up, speak out, and overcome. That’s our Girl Up promise.

Stand with Girl Up in advocating for a gender justice future that prioritizes the rights and freedoms of girls and women globally.Add your voice now and pledge your support to let girls and young women around the world live full, safe, and self-determined lives.

Jessica Giusti, PhD, is Girl Up’s deputy director of communications and digital media.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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