1. Could you describe the first moment when you realized you wanted to do this work?
There isn’t one specific moment that made me realize I want to stop gender-based violence and the “war” on sexual reproductive health and rights. As a young girl, coming from an at-risk neighborhood with a high rate of criminal activity and violence, I am often reminded that many of us are part of the marginalized groups in our community and am well aware of the risks my peers and I are facing. I believe that it was a series of interventions throughout my life, sometime’s still occurring and reassuring me that this fight I am in, is needed. However, I do distinctly remember my first-day attending high school, at 15 years old waiting on the bus. I saw my childhood friend unable to do the same because she was 6 months pregnant with her first child. Even though we live just two streets away, our lives were so different. At that moment I realized that the reality I live in is not the same as others. It made me wonder what resulted in two different realities, thus my journey began to empower young people to reach their full potential and advocate for sexual reproductive health and rights, peace and against gender-based violence
2. Could you take us through a day of your work? Where do you put most of your time and energy?
I spend most of my time advocating for sexual reproductive health and gender equality. This is done in many ways e.g. by organizing projects to raise awareness or to empower young people. I often find myself at the United Nations house Suriname or at home behind my computer running advocacy campaigns and planning projects. My favorite part of being a youth advocate is working directly with my peers and raising awareness in my community. So after writing the proposals and planning the logistics of the project I go to schools to educate youth about gender equality and volunteer in my community as a designated gender-based violence ambassador for young women in need of help.
3. What are your key achievements in your work?
I joined the Youth Advisory Group of the UNFPA Suriname in 2015. I was able to grow substantially and became the female co-chairperson in 2016. For me as a 16-year-old girl this was one of the proudest moments of my life. Especially looking back and seeing how the organization has grown since then. Aside from that, it has truly been an honor to join the Women Deliver Young Leaders Class of 2018. Currently also the Regional coordination specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean of the international youth federation. My most recent achievement is becoming a youth advocate for youth participation within south-south cooperation with the United Nations Office for south-south cooperation
4. How does your organization promote inclusive participation of youth from diverse backgrounds?
The Youth Advisory Group of the UNFPA Suriname works together with youth from all backgrounds. Our year program consists of partnerships with various youth organizations representing youth from different levels of society. Aside from that, we hosted the 2019 first youth conference on transforming education together with UNFPA, UNICEF and the National Youth Parliament Suriname where 41 youth organizations came together to commit to the transformation of education through partnerships, taking into account the diversity among youth and marginalized groups.
5. What has been your hardest struggle so far, and how did you get over it?
Balancing being a young person and a youth advocate at the same time. As a youth advocate, I often feel defeated whenever advocacy plans or campaigns do not result in action and knowing that I still have to balance school, relationships, family and my inner peace.
It often feels like having the world on my shoulder and sometimes like living two different lives, one where I am the voice of many, advocating or being part of an expert panel.
And the next moment, I’m 22, making mistakes, learning, growing, maintaining a social life, living, having to meet deadlines at school.
What really helps are mental breaks. I take them as much as needed! Inner peace and balancing life is so important. Peace is the lens through which I see the world. Being relaxed, at peace with myself, confident, emotionally neutral loose, and free-floating — these are the keys to successful performance in almost everything.
6. What is the biggest challenge you currently face?
The biggest challenge I currently face as an advocate is moving from the meeting table to the implementation phase of those big bright ideas, where policy is made and put into action.
7. What has been your biggest surprise on this journey so far?
The lack of willingness among organizations to build a coalition to tackle the issues of the community due to the competition to receive funding from donors.
8. What keeps you going and gives you inspiration in your work? What gives you hope?
Youth advocates and peacebuilders like myself. Whenever I attend conferences and meetings to discuss the youth agenda on Sexual reproductive health, peace, and gender-based violence I am in absolute awe of the young people I meet. I am very inspired by young people taking the lead and igniting change within their community.
9. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
“Believe in the powerful woman you are and to know that change takes time.” I always felt as if what I was doing is never enough, and that change needed to happen immediately often left feeling “defeated”. But change takes time, especially change within the community.
10. What words of encouragement would you give to women, children, minorities, and other disempowered groups when they are facing rejection because of the prevailing cultural norm?
To never doubt the power of the people. A small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. it is the only thing that ever has!
11. How can people contact you and learn more about your work? (eg: email, blog, webpage)
I can be contacted via my email: firstname.lastname@example.org
But also via my social media accounts, twitter: @michelleBelfor
Linked in and facebook: Michelle Belfor