The girls' poignant stories were incredibly sad. But these girls were also so inspirational, as they spoke emotionally about overcoming hardships that are difficult to even imagine in this country. To see these teenage girls, who are the ages of my own daughters, speak so courageously about the painful, even humiliating events of their lives almost made me cry.
Madeleine, 15, from the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of six presenters at the forum. She described being forced to become a child soldier at age 11, witnessing the rapes and sexual slavery of other girls before she escaped. She is now a committed advocate for girls affected by armed conflict. 16-year old Sunita Tamang from Biratnagar, Nepal missed out on school while working endless hours in a matchstick factory with her mother to support her family after her dad died. As part of the Domestic Child Workers' Network, she now raises awareness about child labor. Zambian Memory Phiri, 19, lost both her parents and was raped at age 10. She learned she was HIV positive after arriving at an orphanage. She went on to write a book, and speaks out about discrimination against people living with HIV.
As the mother of two girls lucky to be growing up in the United States, I was haunted by these horrifying stories. They are just glimpses of what happens to many girls around the world.
As the United Nations has documented, the impact of discrimination and violence against girls is staggering: 55 million girls are not in school; millions of school-aged girls work in domestic service; an estimated 40 percent of child soldiers are girls; and more than 60 percent of young people aged 15-25 living with HIV and AIDS are female.
Behind these numbers are girls just like Madeleine and Sunita, and countless others. We need to pay attention to their dilemmas, educate ourselves and become outraged enough to try to help them. It's our obligation and responsibility. To those whom much is given, much is expected. In this country, where so many have so much, it is our moral responsibility to educate ourselves and try to help.
I truly believe that to change the world, you have to learn the world.