It’s time to build a world that girls deserve

On Tuesday, a powerful panel discussion unpacked how catalysing the next generation is key to change

By Eden Timbery


On Tuesday, a powerful panel discussion unpacked how catalysing the next generation is key to change

By Eden Timbery

It was an early morning call to action for a breakfast panel event celebrating ten years of International Day of the Girl with Plan International Australia and Future Women. But early starts are made easy when shared over fruit and frittatas… and they are made purposeful when the subject for discussion is how to build a better future for girls of the future.

“If we can unlock the power of the ten year old girl, they hold the key to change,” said Plan International Australia CEO Susanne Legena. “We have to catalyse that girl.”

“From the inspiring and defiant young women and girls protesting in Iran right now, those leading climate justice movements in schools and on the streets, to the brave and determined young women fighting to be heard in politics – and demanding that politics to be safe and equal – when girls are freed from societal restrictions around gender everyone benefits”.

Susanne’s words kicked off the morning’s celebrations and discussions, before a panel of inspiring individuals were introduced to discuss the change they’re fighting for today.

“My life is inherently political,” Elly Desmarchelier told a sea of tables at the Sheraton Melbourne on Tuesday morning. Elly was a disability advocate long before she’d ever heard of the term, or knew what it meant. While she relishes the role she plays today, Elly also says that taking up this work was never really a choice for her. 

“When I was in the classroom, I knew that cuts to teacher aides would affect me more than it would affect the other kids in the classroom. Every political decision had a much bigger impact on my life as a disabled girl than it did on girls without disability. I felt a real injustice from that. So I wanted to change it.”

Shots from the International Day of the Girl panel

PHOTOGRAPHY: Laura May Grogan

Elly explained that she knew she couldn’t achieve the change she wanted to alone. Fortunately, she received support from a surprising and high profile source; the then-Deputy Premier of Queensland, Jackie Trad. 

This kind of allyship is crucial for those fighting for change, particularly when it comes to women and girls whose voices are rarely represented in the mainstream. Body positivity activist April Hélène-Horton says the kind of change she aspired to make, when she became Australia’s first plus-sized bikini model on a national billboard, was all about visibility.

“I know that when you are actively putting yourself out there, you are trying to influence people to think differently,” April told panel hosts Jamila Rizvi and Clare Bowditch. 

“All of us here representing ourselves, continuing to find more people to join us on these stages, and to further explore intersections and diversity across all of the different industries that we represent in this room, I think, is one of the most important things we can do.”

Upon sharing their journey to AFLW stardom, Carlton forward Darcy Vescio echoed the importance of community – and shared their own turning point, when they returned to Melbourne for university. They hadn’t played AFL for years. 

“Here I was, a girl in a wheelchair, standing next to the first Lebanese [woman] member of parliament up against all these white men,” Elly recalled. “We would go into work every day, I would be called the ‘cripple girl’, she would be called ‘jihad Jackie’ – but we had each other’s backs.”

“A family friend really pushed me back into footy because he knew that women were playing again.” Entering their first professional training session and seeing the women play, the reality clicked: Darcy was not alone. “I was blown away,” Darcy said. “It was fumble-free footy. I’d been forged to think I was the only sort of person who could do that. I was foolish to think I was lonely.” 

Fellow panellist Senator Sarah Hanson-Young didn’t have a community with a shared experience behind her when she spoke out against the sexism she’d faced in federal politics. She feared that calling it out would end her career. 

“I couldn’t even admit that it was going on to anybody,” she said. “It was this, ‘oh well, I’m a young woman in politics, this is what it’s like. Shut up, keep your head down, don’t complain’.”

It wasn’t until Senator Hanson-Young allowed herself to be vulnerable, breaking her silence in a now-famous confrontation with former senator David Leyonhjelm, that she realised how important it was to show other women there were people in parliament to fight for them.

The breakfast ended with a special musical performance from Clare Bowditch. “I’m going to make you do something you’re not comfortable with,” she grinned, strumming the opening of her iconic song, Woman. 

“I want you to stand up and sing along.”

And so, nervously, the room crooned. Clare’s lyrics were the perfect endnote:

Woman, woman, woman, I see you.

With support from Witchery