“Caitlin Figueiredo is a BIG picture idealist – her mission is to empower individuals from all walks of life to rally together to end social injustice within her lifetime. She believes every man, woman and child deserve to have the same opportunities, as one another and no one should ever be stigmatised due to their backgrounds or beliefs. Everything she does is for the purpose of creating an equal and fair world.”
We are thrilled to have the amazing Caitlin Figueiredo as this month’s Country to Canberra guest blogger. It is a real honour to have Caitlin share her story publicly, for the first time, with us. You can’t help but be inspired by the passionate, determined and hard working young woman that she is.
From Calvary Hospital to the United Nations
by Caitlin Figueiredo
I’ve always known my calling was to take care of people and help unify our world. When I was six years old, I pledged my life to help the less fortunate and provide a voice for those without one. However, before I could do that, I’ve had to overcome considerable challenges to get to where I am today.
Growing up was an uphill battle as I faced disempowerment from chronic illness. I’ve missed around three years of school, had to repeat year 11, I’ve been in hospital so many times I lost count and faced years of physical and psychological abuse.
Looking back, my abuser targeted me for two reasons, one because I was a girl and two because they did not like my independence or my ability to stand up to injustice. I was never one to remain silent and for my abuser, this was something they tried to literally beat out of me. My experience with violence and an inability to defend myself made me powerless to the years of psychological abuse I would face from my classmates and those around me. School for me was a place of anxiety and I was forced to change schools six times, told by teachers and those around me that I would fail and even received death threats. But despite the external challenges, I hated how ashamed and weak my experiences made me feel – I internalised my pain. It took me years before I finally developed the courage to open up to my family, let alone anyone else. Throughout these times I had to learn how to live with my psychological demons where my battle with bipolar and anxiety seemed all encompassing.
One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the misconception that I was not a ‘real girl’ because I did not fit society’s gender stereotypes. Advertising, social media, celebrities and those around me led me to believe a ‘real girl’ was delicate, submissive, quiet, thin, always wore pretty clothes/makeup and conformed to social trends. I was also told my only job in life (as a girl) was to be seen and not heard, get married and reproduce. I wasn’t anything like those stereotypes and I definitely was not going to remain silent. This resulted in my internal struggle with my own worthiness.
I also remember in college, students believed there was no way I could be straight because I did not ‘fit the girl mould.’ A few people went so far to say ‘I’m so in the closet, I’m sliding down the rainbow slide to Narnia.’ I obviously didn’t get the message that ‘straight girls’ could not play elite basketball and wear sports gear… Whoever created the saying ‘sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you’ – well, they lied. They did hurt. And they did cause damage.
For a time my experiences silenced me, unable to speak out in fear of negative reactions and social stigmatisms around abuse and mental illness. This has fuelled my passion to represent those without a voice. So after too many years listening to others telling me ‘who I am and what I’ll achieve’ – I’ve spent the last two years working to recapture my purpose, defeat my demons and prove to the world that nothing and no one will stop me from living my life to the fullest and making a difference. It was through my personal experiences I realised society places unhealthy pressures on girls and boys. And I’m on a mission to challenge them. I know what it feels like to think you have the world against you. I know what its like to live in a place of hopelessness. I want to use my story to inspire others in similar circumstances to know it gets better and they’re not alone.
Where am I now?
Last year I truly stepped into my journey towards helping people by working with World Vision as the VGen ACT State Director. I founded their youth movement within Canberra, which has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. In my role I lead a passionate, game-changing tribe of volunteers who refuse to accept poverty as part of our generation’s legacy. VGen influences Australian government, business and culture through our grassroots campaigning and advocacy. Earlier this year I travelled to Cambodia with World Vision to grow VGen’s global youth partnership program, to visit World Vision Australia’s community development programs and to collectively advocate for ending child labour alongside fellow Cambodian youth leaders.
I have also co-founded and developed Pakistan’s first Arts for Peace initiative alongside my friend Francis Ventura. The initiative aims at empowering young Pakistani women and girls through their interaction with the arts. Our program teaches local women and girls and the wider community about their human rights, the importance of education and how incredible and valuable they are as women. In order to grow the initiative’s reach, I am in the process of building my first School for Peace in Lahore, Pakistan with Francis and our colleague in Pakistan (this will be Francis’s second School for Peace); the school will open later this year.
While 2015 was an incredible year; I became healthier, stronger and happier – 2016 is turning out to be my best year yet! After Cambodia, I had the incredible honour to represent Australian youth at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. After speaking at the UN, I was invited by UN Women’s Senior Strategic Advisor to work for the UN and UN Women as a Strategic Advisor and Youth Consultant on youth and gender equality and youth involvement with the Sustainable Development Goals.. Around the same time I was also approached by the CEO of Global Resolutions to become Australia’s first Global Resolutions Ambassador. The Global Resolutions Initiative is large-scale social impact event created to mobilise resolutions for a better world. I was immediately drawn to Global Resolutions because of its invitation to global citizens to celebrate ‘possibility,’ and stand in solidarity for a sustainable future under the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Currently, I’m developing a gender equality program for the Global Goals for Sustainable Development aimed at empowering over 200,000 young boys and girls by 2018 with the United Nations and World Merit. In August I’ll travel to New York to present my program to the UN Secretary-General. Once approved the program will be implemented within the UN Member States – including Australia. The program will work on creating a holistic empowerment model, focused on psychological, emotional, social, economic empowerment of women and advocating for women’s rights, providing a voice for the marginalised and disempowered. I joined this project because I want to ensure every child in the world has the tools and support needed to fulfil their dreams and shine – no matter their circumstances, religion, ethnicity, place of their birth or gender!
Recently, my work on gender equality and young girls’ empowerment has been recognised by The White House and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, by naming me Gender Equality Global Champion. Last week, I travelled to Washington D.C where I attended the United State of Women Summit hosted by Mrs Obama and The White House, which was a phenomenal experience. I am deeply honoured and grateful to be recognised as a Champion, to have connected with my UN colleagues, Mrs Obama and the other champions, to continue developing new leadership programs and opportunities for young girls and women around the world.
I’m on a mission to create a movement of passion-fuelled youth and leaders banding together to unify our world. Through the power of story telling, I want to provide a voice for those without one and ensure our leaders listen and enact change where it is needed. I aim to continue developing my gender equality and empowerment programs and to use my story to inspire youth to live their purpose; help them overcome disempowerment and stimulate change.
Lastly, to all the readers: If you ever doubt your potential, life gets you down or someone tries to steal your greatness, just remember – when you believe in yourself and stand in the light you have the ability to change the world.
At just 20 years of age, Caitlin is undertaking all of this while completing a double degree in Laws (Honours) and International Development from the Australian National University.
You can read more about the incredible Caitlin here.