Thank You UN, for Helping Me Find Myself
By: Irene Bougenville Martin
When you hear the word “United Nations”, the first few things that come to mind would be something big and prestigious. That is exactly how I felt about the organization when I was younger. However, the UN is not unreachable; faraway, as they have provided me with countless opportunities to engage in programs that help me discover my purpose in life and made me aspire to be part of the United Nations.
My journey started when I volunteered at the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation (IPSF) back when I was in college. I got the chance to engage with UN entities, such as the WHO, UNEP, and UN OCHA and build partnerships with them to strengthen IPSF’s humanitarian/public health advocacy. It was after I got the chance to interview speakers from the UNEP and UNOCHA for the World Earth Day that I started to develop the desire to learn more about social issues and advocate for them.
When I took a one-year leave due to an irritable bowel disease caused by chronic depression, I decided to utilize my free time to reflect on myself and enhance my capacities. I became an IPSF delegate for the online UNAIDS High-Level Meeting (HLM), World Health Assembly (WHA) and United Nations High-Level Political Forum (UN HLPF) during the pandemic. I met a lot of like-minded passionate individuals, conversed with them, and built networks for potential collaborations.
From all the things we’ve discussed, one topic that really drew my attention was on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) as the key to preventing Gender-based Violence (GBV). In particular, through the UNAIDS HLM Conference, I was able to learn about the extraordinary stories of members of marginalized communities and connect with them. This sense of strong connection and concern towards them and the issue itself came from my personal experience as a survivor of bullying and sexual harrassment. But due to to the lack of comprehensive sexual education (CSE) in my family and community, I was never aware that I was a victim.
Sex is rarely talked about as it is still considered taboo in our culture. Perhaps this is the reason why people tend to undermine my efforts or disregard my thoughts when I try to be vocal about this issue, telling me I should just marry and help my parents as a housewife. However, the conversations I had at the UN conferences showed me how big and full of opportunities this world is, that girls should not be confined to these patriarchal stereotypes and that we can be who we want to be.
The conference made me realize how topics about sex are always hidden from conversations with girls as it is considered a man’s’ only-topic, which is actually the root cause of unwise decisions that may lead to unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. I also realized how girls are often asked to follow instead of leading, which makes them afraid to say no, including to non-consensual intimate relationships. Because of this, I felt the urgency to implement comprehensive sexual education in schools and colleges to empower young women and girls to make their own decisions, including about their body autonomy. Further, I also felt the importance of spreading the spirit of advocacy to youths around me as I believe we are the future of our nation.
Another topic which got me immersed is the access to mental health care services. Since high school, I often have anxiety attacks. But due to the public stigma toward mental health issues, I never got the chance to visit a psychologist and receive the treatment I needed. But my experience with the WHA has increased my knowledge on the social determinants of health, how they cause unequal access to health services, and how pharmacists can play a role in providing a patient-centered first-line care to mental health patients.
The UN HLPF also taught me how climate change has exacerbated these issues. From natural disasters damaging WASH facilities and causing infectious diseases, to women who are forced to lose their rights to education and work as they must walk for miles everyday to carry and provide clean water. All these encouraged me to advocate for climate injustice more strongly, especially due to the frequent deforestation efforts happening in my hometown Kalimantan, where forests are being replaced with palm oil plantations, further exacerbating issues of poverty, gender-based violence, and lack of resilience in our communities.
All of these UN-led programs have helped me overcome my trauma and broaden my perspective on the issues. I couldn’t help but think about how I could’ve been saved earlier if I had access to these pieces of information sooner. However, I could not always dwell in the past. Hence, I decided to dedicate my life to help others and serve the most vulnerable communities, especially women and girls. I started doing self-advocacy by content-creating on Instagram to raise awareness on mental health issues and women empowerment. I also utilized my account to share about social issues that I think youths should be aware of and can take action on such as climate change, civic space, and like thereof. Currently, I am working part-time at an NGO which focuses on providing psychological and legal support to victims of bullying and gender-based violence, and increasingly online ones due the emergence of the pandemic.
I would not be who I am today, confident with myself and living with a purpose, if it wasn’t for the opportunities the UN has provided me and the inspiring figures I met along the way. Motivated by their spirit, I would like to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health, a PhD degree in Gender Studies, and a future career at the UNFPA where I hope to contribute to the society through my work. One day, I hope to be able to give back to my country as I aspire to be the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection of Indonesia where I hope to be able to provide shelters and develop laws that can better protect GBV victims, implement CSE into school curriculums, and empower women to pursue and advance their careers as they dream. As a young Chinese-Indonesian woman, one thing that the UN has taught me is that being a minority is not a disadvantage. Instead, it should be seen as the basis of how I can connect with members of marginalized communities and make use of my acquired skills and knowledge to serve others.