The Gender Justice Youth Forum in late January was a student-led project run jointly by UWCSEA East and We Can! Singapore. The partnership was forged through a couple of previous events starting with a Because I Am A Girl (BIAG) GC event where a speaker from We Can! spoke about the plight of victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. BIAG and We Can! then collaborated on a Forum Theatre event to look at the roles that youth can play as peer supporters when challenging gender-based violence, and some UWCSEA students also participated in a We Can! youth and gender issues arts event. The BIAG students were keen to engage with local Singaporean youth on gender issues and to help break through the social barriers they sometimes feel exist between local teens and teens in international schools. UWCSEA also seeks to build connections with our host community on important issues like this. Thus the Gender Justice Youth Forum was conceived. Following, an East Campus student and member of the organising committee writes about her experience and perspective on the forum and the value of creating a safe space for youth to connect and discuss gender-based issues.
“I’ve been told my sexuality is a phase.”
The words fill the silence for a moment before a hum of agreement ensues, warm and knowing. We understand, each of the teenagers present seems to say as they step forward, we’ve been through this too.
At 9.30am on a Saturday morning, 30 teenagers deemed ‘Changemakers’ huddled into a large conference room on East Campus for a unique and powerful gathering on our little Red Dot: a Gender Justice Youth Forum. This combined group of local and international students came together to address topics about sexuality, gender roles and more. A student-led initiative, the forum was conceived by UWCSEA students and led by a student organising team of four local youths in addition to four UWCSEA students.
The ‘Crossing the Line’ activity started off the programme on the first day, setting the tone for the entire two-day forum. As participants stepped one by one into the circle, sharing their experiences on gender and encounters with ignorance about sexuality, a sense of comfort and trust prevailed as we built a haven where youths could talk without fear or restraint and help expand each other’s perspectives.
This sense of community persisted throughout the forum, resulting in insightful discussions about gender stereotypes and thoughtful questions after a range of speakers including a victim of dating violence who started her own campaign and a student advocate from Yale-NUS. I was amazed by the sense of respect pervading the event, be it while participants shared their opinions after a spoken word display on intersectional feminism or debated about the concept of beauty in our society. Respect, while deemed important, is lacking in society, including our school communities. Events like this forum have the potential to combat ignorance and increase self awareness and respect for others.
The cooperative environment fostered by the attendees allowed them to share freely their stories and passions. From Anusha, a genderfluid tomboy whose honest message of acceptance and labels struck a chord with many, to Darren’s persistent advocacy in his college despite his own family’s protests, the individual stories resonated with the student participants. However, as Aakruti-—a body positivity advocate in Singapore—spoke about her work, the importance of the forum dawned on me. Events like this not only inspire but give voice to those in our societies deemed undesirable.
Yet the true gift of the forum lay beneath the debate and the poetry, underneath the laughter and nods of understanding. The true gift lay in the beauty of human connection, a feeling which seized me during one of the ‘Tell Me Why’ speeches which had the room near tears. It made me realise how much we (youths) need stories which empower us, guide us and move us in safe places that can come from events like the Gender Justice Forum. Gatherings that are for youths, by youths can foster solidarity, learning, self discovery and peace.
As we again formed a circle at the closing of the forum, the afternoon sun dappling our cheeks, I knew that we all realised the gift of the solidarity, respect and community that characterised the forum. There are some things one cannot vocalise, but they resonate within us and carry us toward change, ready to spring forward and transform the world around us as we know it.