Carving out a space for young leaders

Jean hopes to level the playing field for youth so that they don’t get discouraged in speaking up on issues that concern them. Photos: JEAN VANEISHA RAVINDRAN

Today is International Women's Day, a day where the world unites to celebrate the achievements of women while pushing for greater equality, highlighting gaps in policy that continue to isolate women and keep them from enjoying equality at home, in the workplace and in society. StarLifestyle is highlighting the stories of young women who are stepping up and taking action for causes they believe in to make Malaysia a better and safe place for everyone

Jean Vaniesha Ravindran reckons that she was “the kid in school who was closer to her teachers than her peers” simply because even as a young girl, she was deeply interested in solving social issues.

“When I was very young I had this ridiculous idea that one day I’d be the president of the United States and solve all the problems of the world. Obviously I didn’t have a clear understanding of how things worked back then, ” she says, with a laugh. “I was born in Tawau, Sabah and moved to Central Kalimantan when I was one year old as my dad was in the oil palm and agriculture business. I grew up in estates, first in Kalimantan and later in Papua New Guinea where he was stationed, and I saw that there weren’t a lot of authority figures coming in to fix social issues.

“I believed that these problems could be fixed through policy and by leadership. I also believed it was important how well people respond to policy and policy responds to people. It is only by governments and people working together that we can achieve the utopia that everyone really wants, ” says the informed 26-year-old who is the co-founder and president of youth advocacy NGO, Challenger.

But it wasn’t till 2016, “during the height of the 1MDB scandal” that she was driven to actively push for change.

“I noticed student activists from public universities leading a conversation on corruption and abuse of power. To see my own country go through suffering was a hard pill to swallow. At the time, the team working towards Challenger lacked structure and I thought I could help organise everyone better.

“I presented my ideas and they were receptive. And we formed quite a dream team of thinkers and political actors, ” she shares.

Through Challenger, Jean Vaneisha wants to empower young people to speak up about issues that concern them and help them be heard.

Jean Vaniesha was aware of social issues and what it took to address them even as a young girl. Jean Vaniesha was aware of social issues and what it took to address them even as a young girl.

“When Challenger first started, it was to mobilise young people. But the issue now isn’t so much mobilising them but finding spaces for them.

“There is certainly a greater presence of young people now and I think they are just very tired of their issues are not being championed. While there many youth-led initiatives, I don’t think many have the capacity to work at a national level. Challenger has been around a while and we’ve connections to help them get heard. We want to level the playing field for them so that they don’t get discouraged. It’s important that we support each other, ” she stresses.

Challenger, she explains, is a platform for ”knowledge sharing, and collective action” to encourage youth political participation.

“Between 2016 and 2018 we focused on encouraging young people to vote, participate democratically by volunteering or running fundraising campaigns. We wanted to break the bubble of the political elite. We’ve seen several of our initiatives inspire more focused movements led by young people. An example of this is Undi18, ” she says.

Another initiative that gained a lot of attention was Parliament Digital last year where a coalition of youth groups organised a virtual parliament sitting to show the country’s leaders that Parliament sitting can go on despite the pandemic. At the time, there hadn’t been a parliament sitting since the change of government in February followed by the enforced movement control order.

“Parliament digital saw a lot of young people being very vocal and representing their own issues directly. And that is the trend now... direct action. Since then, many youth-led groups have sprouted all over the country focusing on a range of issues from social-economic issues to education. I am very encouraged at how far people are willing to go to serve their communities, ” says Jean Vaneisha.

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