"Young people are the drivers of change" - nowhere was that message more enthusiastically embraced than at Elmbank Junior Middle Academy, where an all-girl crowd of more than 250 students hip-hopped to the lyrical stylings of rappers Eternia and Masai One on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
The event, organized in partnership between the 411 Initiative for Change (411) and Plan Canada and hosted by CBC Radio host Nana Aba Duncan, presented an upbeat, yet sometimes gasp-inducing, introduction to the harsh realities of discrimination facing girls and women across the world.
While Masai One, who was born in Singapore and later migrated to Vancouver, told the girls about her Asian encounters with girls who have undergone plastic surgery to remove the slant from their eyes, Eternia talked about violence against women here at home and abroad. Between performances, both described the discrimination they themselves, as female rappers, have had to deal with on an almost daily basis.
"Who invented this idea of beauty? The media did. I'm in the music industry, so I see behind the scenes," Masai One said, noting the offers she's gotten to perform in a bikini as an example of music industry discrimination. "You can enjoy the music and the videos, but always, always question what you see in mainstream media."
Juno-nominated Eternia, meanwhile, said she fights against industry naysayers who tell her "girls can't rap" by striving to be that much better.
Discrimination against women, she said, is a worldwide issue: "Here in Canada, we're more likely to face violence or sexual abuse - but the beautiful thing in Canada is that we can stand up for ourselves, we don't have to worry about going to jail for speaking our minds."
Such isn't the case for women everywhere. Statistics presented Wednesday showed that 50 to 60 per cent of girls in Africa are married before the age of 18, some as young as 10; one in three women face abuse in their lifetime; and 500 million girls in the world can't go to school.
Real-life testimonies from girls from Haiti, Colombia, and Ethiopia via pre-taped MTV segments helped to illustrate those points.
Little Patricia, 14, has spent half her life in Haitian jails for what MTV host Nicole Holness characterized as "crimes of survival".
"She has been in and out of jail since she was seven, and has suffered terrible conditions and sexual abuse being thrown into cells with adults. She was there because there's no one in Haiti to stick up for her; the government is not there for her, so she has no voice," she said.
In a small town on the Pacific coast of Colombia, Lizette, 17, has lost the vast majority of her family to drug-related gun violence, reported MTV's Diane Salema.
"Still, she speaks peace, wants peace and teaches peace. She's involved at a local radio station, where she leads the discussion on children's rights," she said.
Kidan, a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl, would like to go to school to study for her dream job as a doctor, but can't because there's too much work to be done at home. What Kidan doesn't know, and what her mother revealed to the audience, is that her dreams are an impossibility - she's already engaged to be married.
"I have no idea what that would be like. When I was young, I was too busy playing to be thinking about getting married," Duncan said after the proposal revelation elicited shocked gasps from the girls in attendance. "But in areas where there's not a lot of food or money, and in cultures where boys are up here and girls are down there, maybe parents do it for gifts of cattle or goats."
Pernel Woolcock, an Elmbank guidance counsellor, said the stories of these young girls and their plights was an eye-opening experience for her students.
"It was fantastic and really enlightening. It helped students understand that the world is not just us - the feeling that beyond our shores and even further afield there are people out there that are worse off," she said.
But perhaps the event's biggest proponent was seventh grader and aspiring criminal lawyer, Jamille Lambert, 12, who said the main message she took from the presentation is that she, too, can help in the drive for change.
"I learned that women are not always treated equally and are sometimes abused by boys," she said after the show. "It's time to stop that. Women need to have the right to be spoken to in the right way and to be able to speak their minds. Women are equal and should have the same rights as men."