The ‘Greta effect’ is taking hold among young women and girls who say they aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in.
Young women and girls in Australia overwhelmingly believe climate change is the most pressing issue facing the world and their own futures, placing it above gender-based violence, poverty and racism.
A Plan International Australia report released on Friday found girls and women aged between 12 and 25 are passionate about leading social change, even after high-profile criticism of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
The survey, published to coincide with International Day of the Girl, asked more than 1,400 girls what they thought the biggest issues facing society were.
In response, 53 per cent said climate change was the number one issue, compared to 18 per cent who said violence against girls and women, nine per cent who said gender inequality, and seven per cent who believed poverty was the biggest threat.
“I definitely do see climate change as one of the biggest problems facing society today,” TAFE student Kasey Henshaw, 16, told SBS News.
“As much as women’s rights and equal rights are a big thing, I think the climate crisis is so important because if we don’t do something now, we are never going to have a good future.
“The climate crisis is happening today and we need to fix it.”
Kasey, who is also passionate about feminism and body positivity, attends monthly youth group meetings in Western Sydney dedicated to discussing climate change as well as discrimination towards young women and people from multicultural backgrounds.
“I think it’s important for girls to feel empowered because it tells us that it is OK to be who we are, and take up space, and have an opinion,” she said.
Like Kasey, 91 per cent of survey respondents said they were passionate about leading positive change - but only 81 per cent said they thought it would be possible.
The confidence dropped off as the girls got older, with 82 per cent of girls aged 12 to 14 believing they could make change compared to only 18 per cent in the 18-25 age bracket.
The survey was sent to girls and women within Plan International Australia and the research company’s networks, and administered via an online panel weighted to reflect the population of young women in Australia.
Western Sydney high school student Jean Lewis, 15, told SBS News she became involved with youth activism after watching her older sisters Lisa and Rose speaking out about issues they are passionate about.
"It’s really important to educate ourselves on topics affecting us, even when we are sheltered from them,” she said.
“Things are definitely changing, but we are nowhere near where we need to be. As a young woman I can confirm that we are heard, but youth as a whole are not heard enough for our impact to be visual."
Jean, who lists New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as inspirations, hopes to be a role model to younger girls one day but recognises that there will be challenges along the way.
“My goal of being in politics, I hope it’s achievable by the time I am old enough,” she said. “But right now it’s a little daunting to see a room full of men.”
When asked what the main thing holding women and girls back from leading change was, 22 per cent of survey respondents said sexism, followed by a lack of education.
Both Kasey and Jean agree that seeing someone as young as Greta speaking out has inspired their own activism.
“It’s amazing to see someone like Greta Thunberg make a difference. It shows us that no matter how many people are going to try and tear us down, if we persist, people are going to listen,” Kasey said.
“As a young woman, seeing another young woman who has done something so massive is so empowering to show us that it is OK to speak up.”
Jean said she was “proud to be a part of the world at the same time as” Greta.
“Knowing that a young girl is capable of leading one of the biggest movements happening today is really empowering,” she said. “She is incredible … [and] saying what needs to be said”.
On International Day of the Girl, Plan International CEO Susanne Legena labelled 2019 “the year of the girl”.
“We’ve seen extraordinary girls and young women everywhere rising up and taking charge of their futures,” she said.
“Australian girls have told us loud and clear that they see climate change as the most urgent threat to society and to their own futures … We must continue to fund and advocate for free, accessible and appropriate education for girls everywhere as a hugely important way to mitigate the impact of climate.”
A number of high-profile commentators, politicians and entertainers have criticised Greta, claiming she is being used by adults to push an agenda.
“To people who say that a 16-year-old couldn’t be an activist, couldn’t speak up, couldn’t do the research, they’re telling themselves that they couldn’t do it,” Kasey said.
“Whether someone is 16 or 34, people have the right to speak up about something that they are passionate about.”