Beyond the Classroom: Westfield Students Advocate for Global Gender Equality and Human Rights

At the recent conference of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Westfield High School senior Olivia Pecora (back row left) and Roosevelt 8th grader Isabella Gelfand (bottom right) met with Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who led the women’s peace movement that brought an end to civil war in Liberia. They are joined by fellow Girls Learn International (GLI) delegates who, with Olivia and Isabella, were among the 19 chosen to represent the 1,250 members of GLI across the nation. Credits: Westfield Schools

WESTFIELD, NJ - Two Westfield students recently joined decision-makers from around the world at a United Nations conference aimed at improving the status of women globally.

Olivia Pecora, a Westfield High School senior and Isabella Gelfand, a Roosevelt Intermediate School eighth grader, were selected among 19 delegates from across the US to represent the 1,250 members of Girls Learn International (GLI) at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women. 

GLI was founded by Westfield resident and former Board of Education member Lisa Alter in 1993. The organization has provided thousands of students the opportunity to explore issues affecting girls within the context of global human rights, and has trained a new generation to be leaders and activists for social change.

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At the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Pecora and Gelfand actively participated in six full days of workshops, panels and presentations in and around the UN. They spoke directly with UN officials on girls’ human rights, and drafted position statements for the CSW, outlining their stances and suggestions on universal girls’ education, violence prevention, and human rights issues. 

At the CSW, Pecora helped girls from rural Africa and Asia document the girls’ personal stories about being victims of, or witnesses to, human rights violations such as early marriage, human trafficking, or physical brutality.  Together they prepared speeches that were presented at panels attended by journalists, activists, ambassadors and community members.

“I admired the passion and courage of each of these nine girls, as I listened and learned about what life is like for women who are denied access to education and denied basic human rights,” Pecora said.

During the CSW, Pecora was invited to speak at the League of Women Voters session which focused on the importance of girls’ involvement in politics, as well as the need for grassroots organizations like Girls Learn International.  

The week following the CSW, Pecora was presented with the “Outstanding Human Rights Activist Award” at Kean University’s 5th Annual Human Rights Institute Conference. She shared with an audience of approximately 1,000 high school and college students her experience at the United Nations. Pecora, a member of Girls Learn International since her sixth grade year at Roosevelt Intermediate School, is currently president of the Westfield High School GLI chapter and the GLI Junior Board President for the New York region. 

Gelfand worked with a small group of young women delegates to draft the CSW’s 2012 Girls Statement, which was read on the floor of the General Assembly at the end of the Conference. Gelfand also participated in the Girls Caucus event which developed advocacy points, strategies, and key language suggestions related to girls’ rights.

Additionally, Gelfand interacted with girls from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Taiwan and Mozambique.

“My participation in the CSW has made it clear to me that there is no excuse for the rights of any man, woman or child to ever be taken away," Gelfand said. "More often it is women and girls who have been particularly victimized.  In order to enable women to rise above this, it is critical for all to be on board. The equalization of the sexes simply cannot be labeled as a ‘women’s issue.’ It requires the involvement of all.”

Gelfand also participated in the awards ceremony of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Luncheon in Washington, DC, honoring Senators Barbara Mikulski and Barbara Boxer, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Arlene Holt Baker, a supporter for women workers.

Gelfand is currently co-president of the Roosevelt Intermediate School’s GLI chapter. The Roosevelt Intermediate School’s (RIS) GLI chapter is the first and the longest continuously running GLI chapter. Karen Lust, a sixth grade social studies teacher at RIS, has been the GLI chapter’s dedicated advisor since 2005. Over the past seven years, Lust has led the RIS chapter in developing numerous projects and in attending a variety of global events focusing on human rights. 

The RIS chapter has created quilts with the themes of human rights and empowerment that have been sent to partner schools in Uganda and Afghanistan. The RIS chapter has written and illustrated a book that was published on the Help the Afghan Children website and was used to promote literacy in their partner school. A resounding success has been the Hoops for Hope Basketball clinic fundraiser that both Westfield chapters have organized.  For the past three years, the Kean University Women’s Basketball Team has provided skills training for elementary and middle school girls in honor of women in sports. Currently, the partner school for both Westfield chapters is Abdullah bin Omar School in Afghanistan. Westfield Chapter Advisor, Lust has orchestrated day-long workshops for GLI members that included guest speakers, simulations, documentaries and discussions on human rights and the history and culture of Afghanistan.

A total of 23 Westfield GLI chapter members had the opportunity to attend one day of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, and observed a panel discussion highlighting the economic benefits of educating adolescent girls and also toured the United Nations.

Currently, GLI has 90 U.S. Chapters in 16 states and 45 partner schools in 10 countries.

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