For Ayesha, a gender equality activist from Sierra Leone, fighting sexism means defying tradition. In her home country, girls are often married young and may be discouraged from going to school. To challenge these practices, the 21-year-old may have to stand up to a respected community leader.
"You are constantly walking on eggshells," she says. (Plan International, which partners with Ayesha, asked that her last name not be used to protect her from backlash caused by the issues she addresses.)
She tries to find the balance between celebrating her African culture and helping other girls break away from harmful beliefs — messages that they're not cut out for school or must fit traditional cultural definitions of femininity. Sometimes, community members see that kind of activism as a threat their way of life. But as Ayesha says, "If that's making your girls bad, please, can I make your girls bad?"
Ayesha was one of ten young activists NPR interviewed at the Girl Up 2019 Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., this week. Girl Up is a campaign founded by the U.N. foundation that promotes activism for 13- to 22-year-olds to work for the health, safety and education of girls.
The interviewees said it's tough to stay involved. The girls, most of them in high school or college, feel pressure to maintain top grades while living up to their personal commitment to work for humanitarian causes. They say they have to be polite when they try to educate sexist men and boys so they don't alienate them.
And they say they're worn out from it all. A main theme that emerged was burnout: the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from constantly justifying their work to skeptical men.
But they're determined to keep fighting — and find ways to de-stress (the music of Lizzo helps). Here's what young activists are talking about this year.
What common terms do you hear in your activism that frustrate you?
Lauren Woodhouse, 18, Portland, Oregon
"Influencers." Lauren says the term – referring to an individual with social media power — turns activism into something trendy and individualistic rather than communal. "There is fun in supporting women, but we should all recognize that any work is valuable work," she says. "And when corporations [say that] 'this is the influencer to follow and her feminism is our feminism,' it's tiring. I'm over that."
Valeria Colunga, 18, Monterrey, Mexico
"Feminazi." Valeria is fed up with the term because it showcases a lack of education about what feminism is. "It is tiring to have to explain it," she says. She says many people she knows call themselves "humanists, not feminists." So she explains that humanist and feminist "mean different things. If I have to explain it over and over again, I will do it. Because if I don't, who will?"
Winter Ashley, 15, Gilbert, Arizona
"Young socialist." She says she's often seen feminism and social activism equated with socialism – especially on social media from "random, middle-aged white men [saying]: 'you're building a new generation of young socialists,'" she says. (And she knows that's who's being critical because she's done some Facebook investigating.) "I've been called a young socialist in a very negative way by so many people. It's wacky."
Eugenie Park, 17, Bellevue, Washington
"Social justice warrior" is a term that annoys Eugenie. "When you hear the term by itself, it sounds like an empowering thing. But in reality, it's a term that is used to minimize a lot of the work that young social justice people do" by making it seem the activists are just doing it "for a trend," she says. That's been discouraging for her and her friends.
When boys say you can't do certain things, how do you react?
Hibatu, 19, Ghana
"My own brother told me when I was going to senior high school that science is not for girls and that I should pursue something much more girl-like, like the liberal arts. He told me that I am likely to be a failure or probably always be at the bottom of the class because it's very unnatural to see girls doing so well in school. I said, that's not true. We've seen other women across the continents in other places make it. And I told him, I'm going to go to school and do science, and when I finish I'm going to medical school. And I can say that I was always at the top of my class." (Plan International, which partners with Hibatu as well as Ayesha, also asked that her last name not be used.)
"Sometimes people can be just mean, but other times they're honestly uneducated. And we need to be able to calmly and respectfully educate someone else on why the movement [to advance women's rights] is so important. Men are given all of the tools they need to succeed, and then women are told: 'If you want it, make it happen.' Like, we're not gonna help you. And you need to give people examples of where this happens in the world and how you can see it affecting entire communities. Through education and conversation, you can at a minimum get your point across and at best, change their perspective."
Ayesha, 21, Sierra Leone
Ayesha stresses that young activists need to remember that often people are ignorant about feminism and tied to cultural traditions like child marriage and female genital mutilation. "In this community where I come from, these [outdated ideas about gender] are things that they grew up with. So it's not just young boys, it's like, grown men who grew up with this norm 'cause it was drummed in their heads ever since they were little. And it's really difficult to change someone overnight." She says that sometimes these people are trying to be mean but often, "it's because they really genuinely do not see [equality as] possible, because they've never seen it happen before. The way that you respond is what they are going to use to shape their minds. We have to constantly be able to shape this message in a language that is friendly."
That sounds like a lot of effort and emotional labor. Do you ever burn out?
Zulia Martinez, 21, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico
A student at Wellesley College, Zulia says activist burnout is a huge problem. She's part of an ongoing effort to convince the school to pull out of any investments in companies that sell fossil fuels. Focusing on the smaller victories gives her hope. "We had gotten so many students on board, almost the entire student body was supporting us."
What do you do for self-care?
"Sometimes, as activists, you forget that you're actually just a person. You have friends and you stress about your summer body. And you stress about your hair, and you also stress about the lives of other people. So people don't realize that it's difficult sometimes because you have school, and you have grades, and you have chores, and you have a family that you have to think about. And that's why I think we really need to invest in self-care. Sometimes I tell myself just sleep well, and most importantly talk about your feelings, because this kind of work is very, very emotional."
Paola Moreno-Roman, 29, Lima, Peru
"A lot of activists are passionate about things because we truly believe in them. But for most of us it comes from events that we went through when we were younger and that fuels and gives us energy. But I forget that there are things that we went through that we actually never addressed that we just shoved under the bed and just don't like looking at it because it's painful." For her, therapy is helpful: "It goes along the lines of speaking to your friends, because if not, it can be a very lonely journey. Sometimes it just feels like you are the only one who cares. And that's the loneliest feeling ever."
"Recently I got into weightlifting. It's amazing how much more confident I feel, knowing I could start feeling different muscles that I've never felt before. And then I feel like I'm more physically able to defend myself and it makes me just feel like: 'Hello, I'm here.'"
"I find a really big outlet for me is sports — I row crew. A lot of adolescent girls, we struggle with our body image. And something that's really helped me is realizing that your body isn't just there to look [socially] acceptable, societally beautiful. It's there to serve you every day, and it's there to pull you through a finish line. It's there to carry you every day."
Who's a musical artist that keeps you inspired and energized?
Angelica Almonte, 18, Long Island, New York
"I think Lizzo is so good."
Emily Lin, 16, Taipei, Taiwan
"I really like Lorde and Alessia Cara. She's like, my hero. Or she-ro."
Speaking of "she-roes," who are yours?
"Ayanna Pressley was just here [at the conference.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she's like the one."
"There's a female writer, her name is Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author and feminist]. I'm slightly, SLIGHTLY obsessed. I love how she balances her work with everything else that she does. I'm so in love with her."
"This one definitely feels a little basic, but Michelle Obama. Once I saw a picture of her [at] her great-great-great-grandmother's tombstone." That ancestor was a slave — "and one of her descendants becoming the first lady of the United States. That shook me."
"My mom. She sacrificed her career for me, and she's the one who wanted me to become an activist. The women that surround us, empower us. And I think that's why a lot of us have become activists."
"I think my girl here will be Sor Juana [Inés de la Cruz]; she's a poet [and nun who lived and wrote in the 17th century]. She started creating poetry and art to be outspoken on issues that women were facing at that time. One specific poem talked about how men back then said that women were the ones creating their own problems. For her, it was like, how are we creating prostitution when it's men creating demand for it? Or how do you say it's women who are not successful when we can't get an education?"
Any advice you have for young activists?
"One of the biggest things to remember is that activism is incredibly hard, and it takes a lot of work and a lot of perseverance. And sometimes you'll go months without any breakthroughs. You can do all you want in the community and sometimes it's still not going to be effective. And I think that we have to realize that that's not a reflection of our activism. It's not saying, oh, you're a bad activist or what you're doing is stupid, because it's not. It just means that it's going to take a little more time. And like, with myself, I am always very critical of what I'm doing; I'm not getting a breakthrough, I'm not working hard enough. And that's not always the case. Sometimes your community isn't ready or they're scared of the change that you're trying to enact. And it doesn't happen for a really long time. Eventually, you'll get something done. You just have to stick through."
Luisa Torres is a AAAS Mass Media fellow at NPR. Susie Neilson is NPR's Science Desk intern. Follow them on Twitter here: @luisatorresduq and @susieneilson