Speaking up

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The first speaker’s voice barely carries above the hum of the crowd. Even with a microphone, it takes a while for the 200 or so people gathered to notice she’s addressing them. 

When she’s done, others climb onto the fountain steps alone or in pairs, reading aloud from notes on their phones. Not understanding the words, I watch the body language: a few hold themselves confidently, most less so. One, clutching a diamanté-embellished phone, tries hard to control a visibly shaking hand.

These are the girls – some of them look as young as 11 or so – leading Belgrade’s climate march on 20 September, a day that saw record-breaking numbers of people worldwide take to the streets.

But while other cities boasted big crowds (in Dublin, with a smaller population, 10,000+ young people turned out), Belgrade’s was a smaller affair, even though it started at 5pm – less of a strike and more of a march. Locals passing our meeting point looked either confused or indifferent. One man I spoke to was waiting nearby for a friend, and wasn’t sure what the march was about: “I think today is Earth day, or something?” 

The lack of involvement by the general public wasn’t so surprising. Earlier that week I’d asked a Serbian friend where we could find a climate strike, and she was sceptical as to whether there would even be one in the capital. 

What did strike me was just how much it was led by girls and young women. Every one of those we saw speaking – including one exchange student from Germany – was female (although we didn’t continue to the very end of the march). I asked one of the (adult) organisers why that was; she said she didn’t know, but that all six of her fellow organisers were women, too.

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I haven’t been to other climate protests, so I don’t know how common this is. This year the media have frequently often drawn attention to the girls leading the way, sometimes attributing this to the ‘Greta effect’, though of course some of these young activists had been making noise long before they’d heard of Greta Thunberg. 

And at least one other commentator has highlighted that in the US, the strongest voices “are coming from young women, often young women of colour.” That’s not entirely a good thing, she argues: kids as young as 11 shouldn’t be taking on this burden of speaking and being seen (and potentially exploited) on behalf of all of us. She’s right: just look at the highly personal attacks on Thunberg on social media. 

Yet there’s something pretty rare and wonderful about a space that’s not specifically for or about women, but where girls put themselves forward to speak – however nervous they are – rather than letting the boys dominate. I hope the experience gives them power.

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