Friday, August 19, 2016

A heart to change the world

Caitlin Figuerido is a true humanitarian: whether it is in her personal beliefs or in the work she does. Here is her story in her own words. 

My name is Caitlin Figueirdo, and I am the Australian Global Resolution Ambassador, a UN SDG Task Force UN Goal Keeper and I work to empower the youth to create an equal world.
My vision and motivation for empowering youth and young women stems from my childhood, growing up in a multicultural migrant household and her experience of gender based violence and oppressive gender stereotypes. With my families' background, I recognised that while my experiences silenced me, youth and young girls in particular faced far worse situations. This recognition fuelled my determination to work with influential international organisations and build an interactive non-profit initiative that creates increased opportunities and empowerment for young women.
I come from a family of political migrants from Kenya. I am of Portuguese-Indian descent, having been in Goa. My grandfather got a job in Kenya, and left India – but when there was unrest there, my family moved out to Australia. When they came to Australia, they didn’t have much by way of means, so my grandmother gave up her dream of becoming a doctor like her father to take care of the family.  As far as I can remember, I always knew that it was my calling to help people, and to unify the world. Right from the time I could talk, this was all that I wanted to focus on. At home, my grandparents made it a point to instill these values in all of us – to the point that dinner table conversations had centered around the idea of how much we can do to help others. For my grandparents, life was not about how much money you could earn, but how much impact you could generate. At that point, I wanted to help people get out of lives of poverty, and access resources and facilities for a sustainable life. But, my tryst with gender equality began from my own story, as a survivor of gender based violence as a child. 
From age four to twelve, I faced gender based violence. I had to hide this, because people around me didn’t believe me. The abuser was too close, and used a cloak of lies to mask what was really happening, so the person who attacked me got away with what they did. I suppose I was attacked because I was a girl, and also because I was fiercely vocal against what we now call and recognize as Gender Stereotypes. I always stood up to injustice, and always called out stereotypes, and my attackers didn’t like that. I tried to defend myself – but I was beaten, and they tried to drown me. Despite the threats my abuser posed on my life and the psychological toll the abuse was taking on my life, I knew I did not want to become a victim. Instead, I withdrew into a shell, only pretending to be a happy child on the outside. However, after a while of constantly embodying a fa├žade, I couldn’t do it anymore - I stopped socializing which caused my parents to constantly worry about me.   I began to actively take myself out of the spotlight – I couldn’t help others as much as I wanted to, because I was still fighting my demons.
As a coping mechanism, I tried to act like boy, to be more like my brother.  After a while, I realized that what was happening was happening only to me, and not to my brother, so as a method of deflection I had to act like a boy to protect myself. When I turned 12, I had built up the courage to defend myself from my attacker. But, the damage was done. I began to become depressed and show symptoms of bipolar disorder. But the troubles were far from over.
I had faced severe bullying at school, to the point that I had to change schools. It was the worst decision I had made. I was the only new entrant out of a class of 65, and each of those 64 children made it their mission to target me, and to break me. The bullying got so bad, that I wound up either crying to myself in class, or I would avoid going to school. Sometimes, I would go in halfway, claiming that I missed the bus – which was a lie, because I lived ten minutes from school and everyone knew that. The kids bullied me because unlike the other girls who wore skirts and dresses, I decided to wear shorts and pants like the boys. This led to me becoming disconnected from the girls, after a while I had forgotten how to interact with the girls all together. I had chosen to cope with life’s challenges by behaving and dressing like a boy. I had developed the conception of associating strength with masculinity.
Over the years I've been told by teachers and people around me that I would fail, and even received death threats.  I kept it all to myself, internalizing my pain and these nasty messages that kept coming my way. Meanwhile, my mental illness took over. I tried to commit suicide. I didn’t know about mental illness or gender stereotypes until I turned sixteen, when I got very sick. Life, for me, seemed to have deteriorated. I had to leave Grade 11 because of my health, and I also had to cope with my grandmother’s passing. Then one day, after a long period of depression and isolation, I woke up one day and decided that I had to go back to that little girl inside me, who was just waiting to fulfill her mission in life. I decided that I would use my pain to help others around me.  
When I was 19, I founded World Vision's youth movement, Vgen within ACT, and at 20, I co-founded Peshawar Arts for Peace, which inspires young Pakistani women and the wider community to engage with gender equality, build intercultural harmony, help transition marginalised girls and women back into the education system and assist youth and young women to reach their leadership potential.
I turned my mindset around, and began to think positively and about the future. I decided that I would reconnect with myself, and I did it – I went back to the little girl who dreamed of changing the world. I joined World Vision and founded the youth movement within Canberra. I began to help promote the Sustainable Development Goals, and help promote the youth. When I worked with World Vision, I went to Cambodia, where I visited several rural areas to see how the funds were being used at the grassroots. I went to the UN earlier this year, representing Australia, and that was when I joined the working group for young women and gender equality. It feels weird, in a way, to be the person that everyone is suddenly turning to, for advice and information to create impact in their social groups. I am now designing a global equality initiative for the UN, and am working on Art for Gender Equality, an initiative that can help achieve Planet 5050.
At World Vision, I started off as a Director – even though I was technically not qualified, I was chosen because of I  was driven by the passion for the task. That position really launched my passion and reaffirmed that this was exactly what I was meant to do. I am inspired by the youth I connect with around the world. These are the people who battle hardships every day, and are yet so positive and hopeful, and strive for peaceful futures. I know that I can make a change, and it drives me. I believe that the youth can be great changemakers if they harness their passion.
I face challenges every day. Being a woman whose age puts her in the early side of the youth demographic, and not having a degree in hand yet, I am considered uneducated. People don’t take me seriously – and in a way, that’s the dilemma most of the world’s youth face, because youth voices are not taken seriously. Breaking into that is a tough task, but it has to be done.
I also find that I am juggling a lot to do – that work-life balance remains elusive. I sleep about three or four hours a day, I go to the Australian National University where I study a double degree in Law (Honours) and International Development, spend time with my friends, come back to work on all my voluntary initiatives, and then, do some work to get paid to pay for my own gender equality and peace initiative in Pakistan. It’s not a joke! But, my family has been amazing throughout – without the support of my mother, brother and father, I am sure I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Having been brought up in a social set up that places a premium on Indian values of prestige, it was refreshing that my parents didn’t and don’t care for any of that, and instead, just want me to be happy. My grandparents’ support and aid has helped me a lot. I am a passionate change maker and I am eager to shift the dial towards equality and empowerment. A youth and gender equality advocate, international speaker, Ambassador and the Co-Founder of Peshawar Arts for Peace, I have been involved in successfully delivering education, gender inclusive and career opportunities to scores of young women all around Pakistan and India. I have a passion for visionary ideas and intergenerational partnerships, which led me to be ranked alongside Chelsea Clinton and the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo as an International Influencer and Mogul Ambassador to an online platform of 18.5 million women from 196 countries. I was also given the privilege recently, of being recognised by The White House and The First Lady, Michelle Obama, where I was named a Global Change maker for Gender Equality. Committed to public policy and institutional reform, I am one of the youngest UN Inter-Agency Task-Force on Youth and Gender Equality members. I work with a number of agencies and professionals around the world to design and implement innovative gender equality and young women's empowerment initiatives.
I face a fair amount of abuse and resistance for the work I do, especially online, where people threaten me because I work around gender equality. I try to push them out of my mind, and focus on my work. I’ve survived the worst, and if I could survive that, I can survive anything.   

I am driven by the goal of working with the youth. I’d like the youth to know that they should be their own person, to be in their own shoes, as they each have their own dreams and goals. If one tries to be like someone else, they won’t make it. Only when I realized that I was my own person, I started to make it. I think the youth are invincible and huge agents of change – and are incredible powerhouses. If they have the heart to do the work, they will change the world.