Elizabeth Williams and Ashley Judd

Elizabeth Williams and Ashley Judd at the UN Population Fund's offices in New York.

Credit:

Julia Barton

In northern Nigeria, where Elizabeth Williams is from, talking about sex with adults is "a no-go zone." So, she says, girls grow up in total ignorance, thinking that "if a man touches you, you'll become pregnant."

When she was only 15, her friends started coming to her for advice, and she found her own information about sexual health and reproduction. Four years later, she's a youth advocate, one of hundreds in New York to get the ear of the United Nations' General Assembly. And one of the few to share a stage with actress Ashley Judd, a powerful advocate in her own right.

Judd has been on the board of several NGOs that support the rights of women and girls, and she's particularly concerned about children's access to health. 

As the UN puts its finishing touches on its Sustainable Development Goals — ambitious targets for humanity to eliminate poverty and create a sustainable world by 2030 — the actress puts a celebrity face on an issue many NGOs say is urgent: making youth central to policy planning.

"The youth cohort is the largest cohort in the history of humankind," Judd says. "It's equal to the population of India. If they were sovereign, they would be the second-largest country on the face of the Earth."

Judd moderated a discussion at the UN's Population Fund (UNFPA) in New York among youth activists such as Williams. They say they're heartened by a shift over the past few years to make their needs more central in the world conversation.

"Girls and women are still commodified and objectified. And the [Sustainable Development Goals] take the important shift of looking at us and regarding us as rights holders," Judd says.

But the commodification of girls is still a huge issue. Williams says it's all of a piece with the risk girls have in parts of her native Nigeria: first they're denied schooling, then married off early. "Parents think all the money and effort [of education] will go to waste since the girls will end up in a man's kitchen," she says. And so it becomes a vicious cycle, she says. The key is to reach families early, to teach the value of girls, but also to let girls hear that message from their own peers.

It's a journey Judd knows well. She spoke to the panel, organized by the International Center for Research on Women, about her own struggle as a girl, when she was sexually assaulted by a male relative. At first, no one believed her. But she found people who did, eventually, and that led to her own path to recovery.

"We go from hurting to healing to helping," she says. "The shame must be externalized and put back where it belongs, because that's what victims do — we internalize the shame, because the perpetrator is shameless."

Judd knows that as an actor, she's often scrutinized more for the color of her hair or make-up than the content of what she's saying — or she'll be criticized for speaking out at all. But humanitarian work is her passion, she says, and that's far more important.

"That's where I'm going to leverage myself most effectively," she says. "That's where I'm going to have the personal sustainability to stick with the process of transformation. And as much as I want it now, and as urgent as it is, it will take time," she says.

In fact, "It's going to take 'til 2030!" she says, as a laugh escapes her.

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