We leave every conversation with Annabelle O'Donnell buzzing with excitement. In her work for the Human Development Division of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Annabelle witnesses foreign policy implementation on a daily basis. Even better? She’s committed to keeping social justice, human rights and the inclusion of women at the heart of her career.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but provides powerful insights into the strength of youth voices and taking tangible action. We know you’ll be as inspired as we are.
There are so many development issues out there that you could choose to champion. Why did you choose girls’ rights?
Once I reached university, and had the ability to make decisions independently about my own education and future, I became acutely aware of the challenges that girls face globally when trying to pursue an education. This ignited a passion in me to deeply engage with coursework and extracurricular initiatives that focused on girls’ rights, gender-based violence, sustainable economic development, and how access to education can have a transformative impact globally. Education can ignite imagination, creativity, and also compassion for others. It allows us to grow and be dynamic when relating to the world around us. Education also allows us to make informed decisions and judgments, and therefore make empowering choices in our own lives. It gives us the independence and freedom to make our decisions and drive the direction of our futures.
The more I found this to be true in my own life, the more I wanted to ensure other girls would have access to these experiences too. When I watched Girl Rising it changed something in me. I started going to class with a fresh perspective, a heightened enthusiasm and a purpose. Girl Rising, and the stories of the girls who are featured, has profoundly impacted the way I live out my passion for girls’ education, women’s rights, and the eradication of gender-based violence globally.
Can you tell us about some of the ways you have advocated for girls and women in your community?
I have deeply valued the opportunity to engage people from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives in conversations about girls' education. This has included speaking engagements at schools and at my university, engaging with organization partners, and also using my passion for road cycling to raise awareness. In April 2015 I challenged myself to cycle the length of the North Island of New Zealand, to raise awareness for gender-based violence, and in particular the fight against human trafficking. Racing 700km in 7 days in the “Tour of New Zealand” cycle race was an incredible challenge. Yet, I was encouraged, as with each pedal stroke I imagined who I was riding for, the millions of girls and women who are victims of human trafficking, and also those who face immense barriers to receiving an education. I imagined Suma’s story and how she rode her bike with tenacity and determination, and I reflected on how we were both using our bikes to move girls closer to freedom.
What has been your favorite activity?
The most rewarding aspect has been connecting with other people over the issues presented in Girl Rising. I have also been repeatedly encouraged when experiencing how countering gender-based violence, and making sure girls have access to education globally, are issues that matter deeply to New Zealand boys and men as well.
Most recently, I screened Girl Rising at the World Vision New Zealand Head office in Auckland. Among the audience were a number of boys who were World Vision youth Ambassadors. They had been encouraged to bring along a friend who may not necessarily be active in seeking out opportunities to learn about social justice and girls’ education. Before the screening I met with a few of the boys (16-18 year olds). One boy I talked to said “so what is Girl Rising?”. I told him a bit about the campaign and then asked him what he knew about the issue, he said “well…I know about Malala, and I watched the Emma Watson / Malala interview” I said “That’s awesome! What did you think?” he said “Yeah…It was alright”. After the screening I was talking to two girls alone in the movie room whilst the others were in another room. He walked straight up to me and gave me a massive hug, almost in tears, he very quietly said “Thank you, thank you so much, that was an incredible experience”.
Another boy also messaged me the next day saying “Thanks Bella! The screening was great, and really thought provoking, so congratulations and thank you for putting on such a great event…Jay and I had some ideas about what could be done at our school (a school that at times lacks activity surrounding issues like this) so it would be great to catch up with you soon”. It is always such an honor to experience first hand the power of Girl Rising to spark a movement and change someone’s life and perspective on girls education, and the transformative affect globally it has on world issues that impact everyone’s lives.
It is that change that keeps me from being discouraged when faced with such troubling statistics, such as the 62 Million Girls out of education, (approximately 16 times the population of my country!), and to seek out new ways to use my voice to engage others in that conversation.
Issues like the education crisis, human trafficking, gender equality can be a bit overwhelming. How do you keep yourself from getting discouraged?
I draw energy and inspiration from my involvement in initiatives that work towards combating these issues. My involvement as an Intern at an anti-human trafficking organization, consulting committee member in the Auckland Microfinance Initiative, and my role as Girl Rising Ambassador have provided me with an insight into the profound impact education has in combating these issues. It is the knowledge that this work reaches beyond my life, and has an impact on others globally, that drives my involvement when faced with challenges and discouragement. It is also profoundly powerful seeing the momentum of this movement, at the individual, community, national, and international level. Most significantly the support shown by world leaders (such as Michelle Obama), and their willingness to engage others in conversations about girls' education, highlights how the movement is rapidly gaining momentum and what an incredible opportunity it is to be involved with the Girl Rising campaign. I am also inspired when I consider other young women such as Malala Yousafzai and Emma Watson who are advocates for women’s rights and girls' education globally.
What advice would you give to someone else who is trying to take action for girls? What is one tangible thing they can do to help?
Engaging people with Girl Rising, and the issues that the film communicates, across a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives, often requires enthusiasm, bravery and courage. My advice would be to not be afraid to speak up and use your voice and opportunities as a platform for change. I would also encourage others to be disruptive, and seek out spaces where they can engage others in conversations about girls’ education who may not already be attentive to the issue.
Annabelle is proving that raising your voice truly can make direct change. How will you influence the conversation about girls' rights? Take action.