The Power of Amplifying The Voices of South Asian Girls
Growing up in a space where you feel that your voice does not and will not matter is soul-destroying, especially having this realisation at such a young age. As I began to grow and better understand the world around me, I started to realise the sheer amount of inequalities that continue to exist within our system and society today. I struggled to find a space that represented who I am and what I stand for. A space which provided me with the environment to embrace my culture and my heritage. To confidently voice my thoughts without any fear of being judged and without any hesitation.
I come from a traditional Panjabi family and some of my fondest memories are running around in my family’s corner grocery store in the heart of Southall. I witnessed how the wider community came together during cultural events and celebrated the Panjabi heritage, which had always made me feel part of something special. These are some of my happiest moments during my childhood.
As I started to better understand my own surroundings and the world around me, I began to realise that there is a huge inequality gap when it comes to the matter of representation and the importance the voices of South Asian women hold in society. As I took a step out of Southall and moved to university, those very inequalities became quite stark. This ranged from not seeing many academic staff of colour to being presented with a whitewashed curriculum.
I was confronted with a lot of questions. Why was I not seeing many women who looked like me in senior roles? Was it because not a lot of them were simply not applying for the roles, was there a systemic barrier that automatically put them at disadvantage or was it the impact of patriarchal South Asian traditions?
After a few years in the charity sector and experiencing the same feelings of frustration at the lack of representation that exists, I decided to take a year out to learn about how I could contribute to helping to address this. There was a lot to fully understand and I was overwhelmed with the stories of women of colour who had faced discrimination and the impact it had had on their mental health.
A lot of them stated that it was both systemic but also related to not seeing many women from a similar background in certain sectors. That has definitely impacted their aspirations whilst growing up and planted questions in their mind about whether they belonged there.
‘I don’t feel that there are many opportunities for women of colour to progress within their careers to senior roles as there still is the existence of an unconscious bias ’
Fast forward to May 2020, I founded Voices of Colour. A transformative community action and leadership development programme for young South Asian girls. The first part of the community action programme provides the girls with the opportunity to create positive change in their communities on an issue that impacts them. This could range from creating issue-based campaigns to building youth led projects with local partners to influencing local policy. We provide them with the tools and networks to make it all happen. The second part is focussed towards providing them with role models in the form of mentors. These female mentors are changemakers and leaders in their own right from different sectors who identify as South Asian.
We have begun running our sessions online and it has been such a humbling and eye-opening experience in listening to the personal stories of young South Asian girls who are still fighting to be heard and how best we can support them. One of the biggest challenges they have all highlighted is not having a safe space to speak about their mental health and feeling the need to conceal their struggles for the fear of not being understood. These are some of the insights we received from the girls:
‘I don’t feel like I have the safe space at home to talk about my mental health challenges and am scared of being misunderstood by what I’m experiencing’ (anonymous, 16 yr old)
‘I’m not don’t know of many mental health support options in my local area and feel really disconnected to the wider community - why do young people like me not have a say in how we can make these services accessible?’ (anonymous, 16 yr old)
This has been heightened extensively during COVID over the past few months. There is still a huge stigma attached to mental health within South Asian communities, due to a lack of knowledge of what it exactly consists of and dangerous misunderstandings that have been embedded towards the concept via popular Indian media content and mediums. Through our work, we’re helping the girls connect with their local communities to co-develop solutions to tackling this.
Voices of Colour have a vision of empowering underrepresented female changemakers who are unafraid to voice their vision for a better world, support them to have agency to transform their communities, and help them to create long-lasting change.
If you want to be part of our journey or would like to partner with us, we’d love to hear from you. We’re currently in the process of fundraising via Crowdfunder - if you’re able to support or share it, that would mean so much to us!