My name is Dipanjali Swain. I am 19 years old and I was chosen as one of the youth participants who represented India, at the Nairobi Summit, on ICPD25 or twenty-five years of the International Conference on Population and Development.
Why is that such a big deal, you may ask. Simply because, I never imagined, I, of all people, would one day be able to step out of Jagannath Basti in Bhubaneshwar, where I live, leave alone be one of the delegates representing India, at an international conference, where I got to speak in front of thousands of people.
I remember the day I was told I had been chosen to represent India at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 last month, in November. I hadn’t heard about this conference – I heard about it only after receiving the participant invitation letter. When I started to search for it on the internet, I was even more shocked. It was a conference that was being held to mark 25 years of the International Conference on Population and Development [ICPD] that took place in Cairo in 1994, a conference that convinced world leaders that women and girls need to be given importance and priority in all the decisions that a country makes for itself.
And I never imagined I would be chosen for something like this. I am a school dropout, the second of six siblings from a family in Bhubaneshwar. I didn’t think people like me would get these kinds of opportunities. I was totally surprised and also speechless. Because I am the first person in our family and community to be given an opportunity like this and to actually go to another country. When I told everyone, they were surprised, of course, but they were so very proud! My neighbours told their children, they should follow in my footsteps and become like me.
But let me step back a little bit, to tell you why this means so much to me, and why I am talking about it. After I dropped out of school in 2017, I didn’t think my life would amount to much. But my life changed dramatically the same year when I was trained as a peer leader, to work on gender-based violence, and issues related to sexual reproductive health.
Till this happened, I never gave much importance to questions like why women and girls should be treated as equal, or that it is important to learn about basic things like menstrual hygiene and then pass on the same learnings to other women my age and to women in my community. This happened after I was chosen by the Bhubaneshwar Smart Cities Programme, to work with people in my community, as a peer leader or a mentor to people of my age and in my community. Today, I lead the youth club, where I talk about issues like violence against women and girls or the why talking about sexual reproductive health is important.
Over the last two years, I have been able to get my life back on track. I resumed my education and joined a Bachelor of Science programme at Centurion University in Bhubaneswar with the help of an NGO. Today, I am part of the work we do with the communities in slums as part of Bhubaneswar’s Smart City Initiative.
But I never thought this work would take me to the African continent! I’m the first person from my family and my society to step outside the country, and that too, to represent India.
I had never got on a plane before and the feeling was scary as well as exciting! It was my first domestic flight, first international flight and first international conference. I travelled alone, up to the domestic airport in Mumbai, from Bhubaneswar airport. And due to delayed flight of my teammates, I had to reach the international Airport, Mumbai by a prepaid taxi. Everyone, from the taxi driver, to the immigration officials and even at the currency exchange – everyone had the same question: Are you travelling solo?? And why are you travelling? I told everyone, I was selected for the Nairobi summit for my leadership work. They all looked a little shocked, but they all told me, “best of luck”.
I felt extraordinary and proud of myself to participate in an international event where I got the chance to talk about women’s safety, skill development and equality, and the work I was doing to create safe spaces for women, adolescents and girls to help my community.
Nairobi was at first, a little confusing. When I reached the conference venue, I was sure I would get lost. There were nearly 10,000 people there from all over the world – Prime Ministers, Presidents, Queens, women’s groups and so many young people! I stood there at the entrance for a while, trying to imagine how I landed up there, and how lucky I was.
I was worried language would be a problem but everyone told me my English was good! The other youth participants who had travelled with me also said the same thing. At the conference, I met other people from other countries, men and women my age who were doing similar work in their communities. Sharing our experiences made me realise I was not alone.
The day I was to speak, I was nervous. I was performing a mono act, where, through actions, I demonstrated the work I do within the community. At first, I was conscious but when I saw the look on everyone’s faces in the audience, I knew they were interested in my story and the change that I had brought about. When I was done, they all clapped loudly and many people wanted to take selfies with me. They also sent me friend requests on Facebook.
Nairobi made me realise, young people like me, can make a difference to the communities we live in. Everyone’s story there gave me courage and strength to do better. I realised what I have done is very little and I have an enormous role to change my society and lots of things to do. So I have decided that I will play my part to make everyone aware of how it is important that everyone has equal rights and choices.
25 years ago world leaders promised to make the world a better place. The world is a better place today because of work that was carried out after that. Now it is up to people like me to carry forward that progress.