A 16-year-old Nepalese girl burst into tears describing her work in a match factory to help support her mother. A Jordanian teen spoke out about violence against girls in rural areas. A former child soldier from Congo cried when she recalled her suffering as a sex slave.
The three are among more than 200 young people attending a high-level meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which this year is focusing on discrimination and violence against girls. They spoke at a panel and a news conference about issues that concern them, ranging from rape, trafficking and prostitution to education, child labor and AIDS.
"The most important message is that governments should ensure that every working child gets a free education," said Sunita Tamang, lamenting that in her community in Nepal "people think that if you educate a girl child, it will only embarrass you."
There was a time, she said tearfully, when she couldn't go to school because she had to work to help her mother, a single parent. But now, through a program supported by the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, she attends classes in the morning and works in the factory making boxes for matches in the afternoon.
In her spare time, Tamang started a club with other working children to campaign for education for youngsters who have to work and for an end to violence against children.
"What is unachievable if given an opportunity?" she asked at the crowded panel session. "Look at me — I work in a match factory and today I have been able to come here and share my feelings and experiences with you all."
Golfidan Khader Al Abassy, 18, of Jordan, described the discrimination against girls in families, schools and in the workplace in her country and the shortage of programs that focus on girls' participation.
"I hope it will be in the near future that we will have the same opportunities as boys," she said. "The most important message which I want to send for all over the world ... (is) that the girls have a lot of power ... so if we give them the chance to prove themselves, they will be great persons. ... We have to believe in them."
Madeleine — whose last name was withheld for security reasons — was recruited at age 11 into the Mai-Mai militia, a ragtag group of impoverished fighters with varying loyalties who operate across huge swaths of eastern Congo. She spent two years with the militia, fighting on the front lines, and was demobilized in 2004.
At Friday's panel, she urged the international community to bring those responsible for crimes against girl soldiers in Congo to justice.
"We regret we were forgotten by those who should help us in doing justice to us, especially regarding the unusual sexual exploitation that we endured, which was merely sexual slavery," the 15-year-old said.
"We regret the International Criminal Court has not so far taken into account this aspect which would help ease our pain," she said.
So far only one Congolese warlord has been ordered to stand trial before the war crimes tribunal on a charge of sending children into battle.
Chinyanta Chimba, 17, raised by a single mother in Zambia who was determined that she go to school even if it meant no food on the table, is president of the Student Alliance for Female Education, a school club that seeks to change negative cultural and traditional practices and educate girls about HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and child rights.
"The main thing I would say to all the girls out there is that they should know that they have their own rights and it is time that we all stand up as young girls and speak out," she said.
Chimba said there has been "great encouragement" for the girls from the older participants at the two-week conference, which has brought 6,000 men and women to U.N. headquarters from around the globe.
She said she had believed women would never stand up for their rights, "but looking at what is happening today, it really gives me courage."
"I've got two ambitions," Chimba told the news conference. "The first one is to be a doctor ... and the second ambition is I want to become the first-ever female secretary-general of the U.N."
Journalists, diplomats and U.N. staffers in the room burst into applause.
We can applaud them in New York. That is all well and good. These girls deserve more than that. I wonder, however, just how much we in the West believe in universal rights anymore. Without that belief, I'm not sure we have anything more to offfer them than sympathy.
The sad truth is it amounts to saying, "It sucks being you."
Put this down as reason #3299 why cultural relativism is a bad idea.