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Shalini Sahu, Women Deliver Conference

“Shalini is a 24 year old young changemaker from India who got the chance to represent the issues of many young girls in India at the prestigious Women’s Deliver Conference 2019, due to a joint effort of Save the Children and the More Than Brides Alliance. Read her diary entries below to learn from her reflections and experiences from the conference.”

2 June 2019

After a long flight from Delhi, we landed in Vancouver for the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. I am told that about 7000 people from around the world are gathered here for the next four days to talk about issues affecting young girls and women around the world. I am here to not just represent my village or community, but women and girls in my country.  This is a big opportunity to share my experiences and learn a lot from so many participants. I want to make most of it.

After checking into our hotel, we headed to the Vancouver Convention Centre located in the heart of Downtown Vancouver. The centre has a harbour front setting, and it is a beautiful view wit a vast expanse of water and clear blue sky. The first thing that struck me was the huge Holland America Liner that was anchored just next to the Convention Center. Whilst I was absorbing my surroundings, I suddenly felt, ‘Am I really here?” I actually am in this city far away from my village in Nuapada, located in the eastern state of Odisha in India. The region is known for its rich tribal culture and some famous temples too.

After a hearty breakfast, we went to the registration area. The inside of the Convertion Centre was huge. I look around to see colourful banners, posters and signs which were directing people to different areas. It’s only the first day, and I see a lot of people have arrived to attend the conference.

We are going out for a stroll along downtown Vancouver as the conference will open tomorrow. Some pre-conference events have already begun- we attended one of the sessions on Sexual & Reproductive Health (SRH) issues and the role of young people in leading the change.

Her Excellency, Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau of Netherlands (also the Chair of Girls Not Brides Alliance) made her opening remark, where she emphasised the power of youth, especially girls, in tackling SRH and HIV related issues. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to hear and interact with youth representatives from other countries who are working on the issues related to HIV-SRH.

I am looking forward to tomorrow. I am excited and cannot wait to experience every bit of what the next few days have to offer.

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3 June, 2019

It was an early start to the day as we wanted to be there early so we wouldn’t miss even a second of what the day has in store!

We started our day at 8:00 am and then a 10-minute bus ride took us to the Convention Centre. I saw the waterfront and I knew we had arrived.

There we met other colleagues from Save the Children and the More Than Brides Alliance . We had the famous ‘tradditional english breakfast’ together, and then we had a security and logistics briefing session to help us navigate a new city. This was followed by information about the conference, sessions and other important details about the Women Deliver 2019 Conference.

I saw teams from different countries setting up the exhibition and booth area, and then we headed to our booth where the teams were giving it the final touch. I turned to see a huge poster, a poster with my photo. I laughed, immensely overwhelmed.

By the time our booth was finally ready, it was time for a quick lunch before we head to the formal inauguration. It was a grand hall filled with a gathering of almost 8000 people. The Conference opened with a reverberating music performance by Canada’s Indigenous community.

And what followed afterwards was a historic moment. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau arrived to a roaring cheer from the audience. His speech was powerful and moving. I penned down some of things he said that left a deep impact on me. “We are not powerless. It’s up to us to fight back. All of us – women, men, gender-diverse people, neighbours and allies across communities, all of us together, all of us standing strong on gender justice worldwide, have to play a role.”

He talked about the power of a choice and a voice. I heard later on that the Prime Minister announced a huge amount of funds towards empowering women and girls.

When I return home, I wish to meet our own Prime Minister and share my experience of this with him. I also want to tell him that girls and women, when given equal opportunities to learn and grow, can be a leaders and Agents of Change for the whole country.

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4 June, 2019

It’s my fourth day in the city and the second day at the Women Deliver- 2019, conference. The day started early and we had to be at the venue by 8:45 in the morning.

After getting ready for the conference, we boarded the bus to reach the venue, along with our other team members from different countries. When we reached the Canada Convention Center around 8:45 am, we headed to the More Than Brides Alliancebooth, where I had a one and a half-hour session on issues related to child marriage. I was nervous, but I reminded myself that I am here to represent my country and other girls just like me. That gave me a sudden boost in my responsibility and confidence, and I gave it my best.

I spoke in front of around 100 people about the issue of child marriage and why we must address it.

You can’t imagine who then dropped by at the booth during my session! The First Lady of Canada- Sophie Trudeau! She was lovely, and I introduced myself and even took a picture with her, something which served as the most memorable moment of the event for me so far.

The day ahead was busy. Immediately after the first session, we rushed to the next side event by Save the Children – Girl Talk: Ending Child Marriage with the Power to hold Power to Account. I attended two power-packed panel discussions on the many ways in which governments and communities are being made to be more accountable to women and girls.

I was then asked about my views as a youth advocate on the important steps needed to tackle child marriage in India and what young people like me can do in this direction.

The panel discussion was moderated by Ms. Carolyn Miles- the CEO of Save the Children US. During the Q&A session, I was asked a large number of questions by the audience and I answered them all.

At the end of my session, I could hear the audience applauding me. This was a special moment. I never had imagined that I would be speaking at such big global platform and traveling all the way from my village in Nuapada in Odisha. I pinch myself even now- it is a dream come true!

It is already 7:30pm now. And even when the late evening arrives here, it is still light outside unlike in India.

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5 June, 2019

It feels like I only came here yesterday. Four days have already run by so quickly! It is my fifth day in this beautiful city. We took the bus from our hotel to Burrard Street stop and then we walked down to the Canadian Convention Center. The air is clean and the sky is so clear and blue!

There was a buzz at the booth today. We had to draw people to come to our booth so we could tell them more about our work asMore than Brides Alliance (MTBA). It was fun! I had a session at the booth, where I had to share my journey as a youth advocate against child marriage. I discussed the need to involve boys in order to tackle the problem of child marriage. I also talked about the importance of including girls in various types of vocational training, so they can work and earn their own living. This can give girls the power to make decisions and have a voice.

I also showed the visitors our special interactive kit on Sexual & Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR). The interactive kit involved aprons with male and female reproductive organs that makes it easy to explain to people what protecting the rights involved. When I wore the apron, lot of people came to me out of curiosity. It was a fun-filled day with various new experiences. The audience present at the booth applauded after hearing about my work at the community level with Save the Children and it was truly a gratifying experience for me.

I made many new friends here. I must tell you about Aminiata from Malawi. Though we cannot understand each other’s language -as she speaks French and I mostly speak Hindi, we can still somehow understand each other.  She is very caring and probably because of her mother-like affection that she shows me through her gestures.

Today, an official from the World Health Organization (WHO) walked over to our booth and praised me for my work on the issue of child marriage. She even gave me glittering bags as a token to my contribution towards girl empowerment. That gesture was special and I will always remember this. I felt so good, to be appreciated by so many people from so many different parts of the world. It is a special feeling. I smile to myself.

Today, the day ended with a cultural programme, followed by dinner. I was extremely excited to see the Indian Food Corner. But it wasn’t just me, I saw a lot of foreigners swarming to savour the delicacies from my country.

Today was full of so many special moments, I just had to remember and write down every bit about my day before I sleep tonight.

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6 June 2019

Today was the last day of the Women Deliver 2019 Conference. As I am penning down my experience, the whole week flashes before me. The week just flew by. But every minute of it will be etched in my memory forever. As on the previous days, our first stop was at the booth. This was the designated area where we engaged with participants and delegates using our interactive presentation on Sexual Rights and Reproductive Health issues. It was encouraging to hear from almost everyone who attended my session that the demonstration model with the special apron, was a simple and illustrative tool for teaching adolescent and young people.

My new friend from Malawi, Aminata (whom I fondly call Dadi Amma – meaning grandmother), has gifted me with a very special musical instrument from her country. She said that it would help me in drawing the attention of people while organizing my street theatre sessions back home. My eyes became teary when I suddenly realised that this may be my last meeting with her. I have formed a unique bond with my dear Dadi Amma, and I will find ways to keep in touch. She has my heart.

We started walking to another venue to attend a panel discussion. After the discussion, I met with an Indian delegate – Dr. Dinesh Baswal, Dy. Commissioner who was representing the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India and Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, National Convener- White Ribbon Alliance. In my brief interaction with them, they gave me some very useful guidance, which I will include in my sessions when I go back home. Since sexual rights and reproductive health closely relate with people-centered care, they said it is important that people can access their rights but they must access and receive it with dignity and care – a very important message. I thought about it for long after.

When I go back home, I want to meet officials in my district and hopefully the Chief Minister of my state, Odisha. When I do, I want to share with them, not just what we are doing in my community but the wealth of learning that I am taking with me. It is not about me alone but about the many more girls and adolescents and untapped potential that can contribute to the wave of change. And if my Chief Minister can lead the action on empowering girls, India can and the whole world can.

Oh, I must tell you, I have also joined Save the Children Canada in their photo action by holding the message ‘#STOPTHEWARONCHILDREN’, which is the new global campaign of Save the Children.

In another 24 hours, I will be on a flight back to India. The clock is ticking and soon it will be time to say goodbye to this lovely city. Thank you for reading my diary. I am already beginning to miss my dearest Dadi Amma. But the musical instrument will continue to remind me of her inspiring presence. When I return, there is so much more to do and so much to share with my community and friends.

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About Shalini

Shalini is a 24 year old young changemaker who received a UNV Award for her exceptional work in her community, creating change for girls- from ending child marriage to spreading awareness on sexual and reproductive health. With Save the Children’s programme ‘Marriage No Child’s Play’, she recieved formal training and was soon ready to tackle various issues relating to girls and adolescents.

She became a life coach, providing training through capacity building workshops to adolescents and she has reached nearly 1000 of them in her community. Through these training programs, Shalini makes young girls aware of their rights, helps them transition through the dynamic stages of puberty and encourages them to raise their voices against gender-based violence. With the group of young leaders in her community she has stopped 12 child marriages!

She has also been instrumental in running the campaign ‘Right to Sanitary Napkins’ whilst spreading awareness on sexual and reproductive health. With the help of village ASHA workers, Shalini also approaches pregnant women and lactating mothers, spreading awareness on the importance of iron supplements and immunization.