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GirlzTalk with Jayathma Wickramanayake

By: Ayesha Khan

Every month, girlz in our program have the opportunity to hear from inspiring and trailblazing women from around the world on a range of topics. We admire these women, not only for their journeys but for how they’re paving the way for women and girlz around the world to thrive.

For this month’s GirlzTalk, our team interviewed Jayathma Wickramanayake, the current UN Youth Envoy and the youngest senior official within the UN. Jayathma leads the UN’s youth engagement and advocacy efforts in sustainable development, human rights, peace and security and humanitarian action.

Before joining the United Nations, Jayathma had witnessed how violent conflicts and ignoring the needs of the youth can negatively impact virtually every part of society; be it education, gender equality or the climate. This was due to the fact that she was born in the midst of a 30-year long armed-conflict in Sri Lanka that encompassed periods of youth unrest. These experiences cultivated her desire to make politics and governance more accessible to young people, leading her to become a fierce advocate for human rights.

Here are some of the key points and takeaways from an uplifting conversation that left our girlz with a passion to change the world!

On Navigating the Workplace as a Woman:

Jayathma’s personal experiences at the top teach us that whether women are leaders in corporate or political environments, as female leaders, we all face similar issues. As the first female Youth Envoy, the youngest official in the UN, as well as being a woman of color, Jayathma experienced stereotypical mindsets of others who made her feel like she had to prove her position as Youth Envoy and question her belonging at the UN. Here are some of the key challenges that Jayathma and many other women face in the workplace:

  • Stereotypes will make you feel like you don’t belong: Jayathma recalls a time when she was recognized as a support staff, while her support staff was recognized as the Youth Envoy. Microaggressions like this will always exist. It will be discouraging, but with time you WILL develop thick skin if you keep asserting who you are. You don’t need to keep proving your worthiness and belonging to others, correct others when they fail to recognize who you are but keep it straight to the point.

  • You’ll be expected to do more work than men, use that to your advantage: “As women we are always told that we need to work ten times harder than a man would have to. That has prepared us for every situation, and I think it’s a good thing. Everyone should be prepared and planned out if you’re serious about getting something done.” Women leaders are far more effective and prepared because of the scrutiny they’re put under in society. Use this expectation to your advantage and make your work phenomenal.

Speaking Up For Yourself:

In male-dominated spaces, asserting yourself, speaking up for yourself or even reacting to offensive statements can be scrutinized or stigmatized. As women, many of us can relate to her struggles. The discomfort, embarrassment and shyness that come with speaking up for yourself were some of the struggles Jayathma touched on. She also spoke about overcoming the discomfort:

  • Practice, practice, practice standing up for yourself: At first, asserting your personality, thoughts and position can be daunting and embarrassing. But, every-time you get past that discomfort and say something that lets others know that you shouldn’t be overlooked, you develop the confidence and skill to speak up effectively.

  • Don’t let guilt and regret consume you when you start speaking up for yourself: It can be hard to find the balance between being reactive enough and not too confrontational when you respond to others’ offensive statements. Don’t drown in your regret at not speaking up or your guilt from being too harsh with someone; instead, move on quickly but reflect on what you would’ve done differently to improve your confrontational skills.

  • Speaking up is a privilege, take into account what might be holding you and others back from defending their rights: There are a multitude of barriers that prevent women from speaking up at their workplaces, and consequences of speaking up include losing a job that a family depends on or assault. So, speak up with your own interest and wellbeing in mind (for ex. report injustices anonymously if you could face retaliation). If you have the privilege to speak up without consequence, protect and support other women if they wish to defend their rights and opinions.

Creating Lasting Change for Generations to Come:

“When I joined the UN, I had to make a conscious decision. Either I had to stay outside the system; protest, march and demand for change (which is important). Or, I could take that spirit and my ideas with me, enter the system, and try to disrupt the system from within. As much as you march and protest, I think you should also run for office and take political positions so that you can sustain that change you’re creating on the streets. As a movement we need to work at both levels, the community and policy-level.”

At the pace the world is going, achieving a gender equal world will take ages. Jayathma believes in creating change that is sustainable. Transformational change does not only impact individual lives, but impacts lives on a much larger scale. She hopes that the young generation will learn to dismantle oppressive policies, laws and systems that oppress women and vulnerable communities. Here are some ways we can initiate and be a part of global change:

  • Change starts from home: Jayathama's family sat down every Sunday to analyze the newspaper and current events, which she says helped her develop her awareness for social issues and leadership skills. Children develop their value systems and principles at home and the same children become the leaders of tomorrow. Global change is initiated in family settings.

  • Find your community: To impact individual lives, find organizations, people and communities that help you create a difference in the lives of the vulnerable while protecting and rallying around you. Most people have the ability and resources to work at the community-level, and that’s what organizations like GirlzFTW are doing.

  • A systemic problem needs a systemic solution, work at the policy-level: The change you make in individual lives can only sustain beyond your own generation if the laws and policies of your country reflect the same change. Systems need to be changed, laws need to be created and more women need to work within governments to dismantle problems like child marriage from the root.

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