Camila Serna is co-facilitator of Girls Got Game, a program that the Canadian Women’s Foundation supports. It invites newcomer and refugee girls to play sports in an inclusive, uncompetitive environment.

In March, she brought her perspective to The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW), an intergovernmental body that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Tell me about what you do with Girls Got Game and how it relates to the UNCSW?

Myself and the other facilitator, Vineeta, create lesson plans, coordinate field trips, and run the program by engaging with the girls. We try to get a lot of feedback from them and adjust the program to suit their needs.

Through the program we are able to connect the girls in our community with public spaces such as the recreation centres, libraries, and parks, which are not accessible to them because of systemic barriers. We also encourage them to make friendships, be active, and try new things. That gives them more confidence, and lets them know that they shouldn’t let gender roles limit them. Hopefully it has a lasting impact on them and helps further gender equality in our community in the grander scheme of things.

I was very excited for the opportunity to participate in the UNCSW because girls are often underrepresented, and kind of undervalued in our society.

Did you talk to the girls at all about going?

We explained to them what social protections were, and we wrote down the definition on flip chart paper. Then we had them write down examples from their own lives of social protections. But I think they kind of misunderstood the concept because instead they ended up writing why they enjoy Girls Got Game. It was really sweet and heartwarming …

During the brainstorming activity the girls mentioned how they enjoy having a space that’s just for them. One girl wrote that she was happy to be in a program without boys because she finds it hard to play sports when boys are too aggressive. She expressed that she feels like they can’t share the same space because the girls will get pushed out. I’m always worried that we’re putting words in the mouths of our young people, especially with that age group, but they seemed genuine.

I think in future we’re going to try to engage them more with global issues, so they can get used to those kinds of conversations.

What was the atmosphere like when you got to UNCSW?

If I had to describe the atmosphere in there, I would say that, you could feel everyone in the room was there for a cause, and they were all really present. When I went into that room it just felt like everyone was there with a purpose, they were all there to listen, but also to represent people. It felt like we were all aware that being in that space was a privilege, and that for every person in that room, a lot of other people who should have been there weren’t able to. Does that make sense?

It definitely does. Was there a favourite session that you attended?

My favourite one was Youth Speak Out, on Canada’s social protection systems. It was held by the Institute for International Women’s Rights, from Manitoba. It was this panel of 4 incredible young women, all from Manitoba and all from diverse backgrounds. Two of them were from First Nations, one of them had been refugee, and one of them was representing young women who have experienced sexual assault.

The stories they shared were about their personal experiences, but they connected it to greater gaps in policy and social protection… When they shared their experiences it was a gift to everyone in the room.

That kind of solidarity and the rallying cry was just so powerful. Seeing them made me realize the importance of youth and why we need to empower young people to speak for themselves.

Is there anything you learned at one of those sessions or events that you think is especially relevant to your work?

[A young woman from Turkey] told me that, growing up, her father had shared a story with her that helped [her not get disheartened].

In the story, there are these two men, and they’re walking along the beach, when a big wave comes and leaves a whole bunch of starfish on the shore.

One of the men starts picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. And the other man looks at him and says: “What are you doing? Do you know how many starfish there are in the sea? Do you know how many beaches there are all over the world? Do you know how many of them are washed up on all the beaches? And you’re just throwing a few of them back. You can’t make a difference.” And the first man picks up the starfish, and he looks at the other man and says “To this one starfish, it makes a difference.”

I thought that was really a good metaphor for what we’re doing. There’s so much that has improved, and it just reminds me that we can never really give up, and that we’re all in this together.

That’s a story that I want to share with the girls.

I love that story. I imagine in your work it’s easy to forget that your day-to-day conversations with the girls are having real impact and are shifting gears towards systemic change.

With the kind of work that we do, after-school programs for girls, it can seem unimportant compared to a lot of the work that other people do. Compared with say, working to end sexual violence, our work doesn’t always feel as urgent. But something that I took away from UNCSW is that what we’re doing is preventative, that it will make a big difference in the long run, and that it’s just as valid and important in terms of protecting youth as other kinds of intervention.

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