Diviya Leonard may not be old enough to vote, but that hasn’t stopped her from using her voice to fight for gender equality and women’s rights. The 17-year-old Torontonian public speaker, leader and social activist has been speaking up for social injustice since the young age of 12, when she used a school speech competition as the perfect platform to discuss issues and challenges facing women and girls. From there, a passion was ignited and there was no turning back – or holding her back. Diviya went on to join Plan International Canada’s Speakers Bureau, and has worked with the organization on its campaign initiatives, and recently had the opportunity to travel to Ghana.
Despite her seriously cool experience (like sitting on a speaking panel with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, working with Ghanaian youth and running a blog) and national recognition as the recipient of the coveted CanWaCH Gender Equality Award, Diviya remains well-poised, humble, kind and intelligent. She’s basically the girl whose brain you’d want to pick all day long.
In celebration of International Day of the Girl, The Ace Class is profiling strong, real and fierce women who are encouraging girls to rise up and reach their full potential. A true role model for women, men and youth everywhere, Diviya fully demonstrates the power of youth. And if Diviya represents our future – we’re in good hands.
ACE: International Day of the Girl aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights – what do you think are the best strategies to empower girls?
Diviya Leonard: “The first thing is providing girls with access to education. Around the world, there are still 130 million girls who are not in school. In order to achieve gender equality, we need to bridge this gap and ensure that girls are empowered through education, that they can make decisions, earn a steady income, have children when they are ready, and then, be able to support their families.”
“Within organizations, it’s really important that they focus on the girls through using a rights-based approach. Instead of focusing on how empowering girls will have economic benefits to countries or to people investing in girls, it’s important to recognize these are girls whose rights are being denied and that’s why it matters – not just because it will help a country’s economy.”
“Lastly, having proper representation for young girls allows them to see that there are passionate, successful women who are in positions of power and are doing a variety roles. These young girls can feel empowered and confident and believe that this could be a possibility for them as well.”
ACE: What does International Day of The Girl mean to you, and why do you think it’s important to celebrate?
DL: “International Day of the Girl is a really special day for me because a lot of the time I’m working to advocate for girls’ rights, and this day is really a time to celebrate what our society has achieved so far in terms of gender equality. It’s also a day to celebrate a lot of really incredible girls and women who have paved the way towards equality in the past and the girls who are advocating for change right now. But, at the same time, it’s also a time to look to the future and recognize how far we still need to go before equality is a reality for everyone, everywhere in the world. We definitely still have a way to go.”
ACE: Since you were 12, you have been an ambassador for Plan International Canada’s #BecauseIAmAGirl initiative. Can you tell us about your work with this organization? What experience has had the most profound impact on you?
DL: “I started getting involved with Plan International Canada when I was in the sixth grade. I gave a speech at a school competition about women’s rights and the #BecauseIAmAGirl initiative, and then after I won the competition I was featured on the Because I am a Girl blog. After that, I started researching the organization more – what they do, things like that, and I saw that they had this program called the Speakers Bureau. At the time, I was only 12 when I joined the Speakers Bureau, so I was definitely the youngest. The age range was 14-24, so I asked if I could still join and they let me in and extended the age range.”
“I’m now going into my sixth year on the Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau is held nationally and the main hub is in Toronto. We have monthly meetings throughout the school year and meet with like-minded girls who are around the same age range and talk about women’s rights and issues. Additionally, we receive public speaking training and we also get a lot of incredible opportunities to take part in campaigns that Plan International Canada is hosting and participate in events. We also get to travel to different countries.”
“This summer, I went to Ghana with 10 other youth advocates. Plan International Canada has this campaign called Change the Birth Story that is working to address the complications and barriers that women face when seeking care during pregnancy and childbirth. I am part of a group of 30 youth advocates who are working to raise awareness about this campaign amongst Canadians. We were paired with 10 Ghanaian youth there, and we learned a lot from them. We shared with them about what we do in Canada, and they talked about what they do in their country. It was really inspiring to see what they are doing in Ghana in comparison to what I’m doing here. It’s interesting because I have a club at my school where we talk about women’s rights and things like that and a lot of them are leaders of their own clubs, so it’s fascinating to see how we come from such different circumstances, but at the same time, we have a lot of the same beliefs.”
“My experience in Ghana really gave me a new view on the world – especially how important international aid is. Working with youth in other countries was really amazing.”
ACE: What is the one thing you wish you heard as a little girl? What is the number one thing you think little girls and young women need to hear today?
DL: “I wish I was told that it’s okay to take up space and raise your voice, and that it’s not a bad thing to be called bossy. I think it’s important that girls are told that their voice matters and being bossy is not a bad thing – it’s actually something to be proud of.”
“Also, just knowing that they have the power to pursue any career they want to have and to use their voice to advocate for anything they believe in – their voice really is powerful.”
ACE: Which women inspire you and why?
DL: “There are a lot of women that inspire me, but the one person who I first found inspired me was Malala. When I was a lot younger and I started learning about her story and all the challenges she had to overcome, it really inspired me to do my part to support girls’ rights. I think she’s such an amazing advocate for all the women around the world. Other women I’m inspired by are Amal Clooney, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Michelle Obama.”
ACE: Have you ever felt held back from having your voice heard because of your age or your gender?
DL: “I’m lucky with the community I’ve grown up in, as they have really supported me in anything I wanted to do. But, at the same time, like most people, when I was growing up I was called bossy because at school I’d definitely make my voice heard loud and clear. Sometimes it bugged me. But I realized that it is a compliment and girls should be proud when they are called bossy because it means they have a voice and they aren’t afraid to use it.”
“In terms of my age, there are definitely a lot of times when I’m in rooms where I’m the youngest one there – and sometimes I felt underestimated because of that. However, I think that my generation is continuing to show that youth are much more important and powerful than they are usually given credit for, so that’s paving the way for me to be taken more seriously as a teenager.”
ACE: You’ve mentioned that the feminist movement needs men. What do you think are the best strategies for engaging boys and men in this movement?
DL: “One of my friends once said, ‘It’s important to call men into the conversation and not to call them out for their actions.’ I think that really sums up what I think we should do. It’s important to emphasize that feminism and the fight for gender equality is not about women who are anti-men, it’s really about equality between the sexes and supporting the most marginalized individuals – whether they are female or not.”
“I also believe it’s important to give men safe spaces to discuss issues that affect themselves, as well as how to support the women in their lives. An example of this was when I was in Ghana, a lot of the communities Plan International Canada was working in had groups called Daddy’s clubs. Daddy’s clubs were where fathers in the community would come together and talk about issues they are having, how they can support each other and how they can support the women in their lives. I think that’s definitely something I’d like to see a little bit more of here in Canada.”
ACE: Earlier this year you were awarded the CanWaCH Gender Equality Award. What does it mean to you to have received this incredible recognition at such a young age?
DL: “As one of the youngest activists recognized, it was super exciting to receive this award. I really believe in the power of youth and I think it’s great that organizations like CanWaCH are supporting young people like me.”
“However, one thing I always try to remember is that I never started doing this work with the intention of receiving awards and recognition. I always want to ensure that my vision for social justice is really at the forefront of everything I do – regardless of any awards or recognition I receive.”
ACE: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
DL: “Right now, I’m in my final year of high school so I’m starting to apply for scholarships and university programs. I’m currently considering a few universities mainly in Ontario, like Queen’s, Western, Ottawa, maybe McGill. I plan on taking a program in the fields of political science or international development. Eventually, I’m thinking of going to law school, but I don’t have everything planned just yet. I plan on staying involved with the Speakers Bureau and keeping up with my blog in my spare time.”
ACE: When it comes to gender equality, what keeps you hopeful?
DL: “I think the future for feminism and gender equality is very bright. It makes me really inspired when I see other youth advocating for change and making their voices heard. I’ve met a ton of women and like-minded people through the Speakers Bureau and other work I do, and they all are so inspiring to me and really keep me motivated to continue doing what I’m doing. The fight for gender equality is far from over, but I think people are really starting to wake up to the harsh realities around them and we’re really starting to see change happening.”