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"Speaking out is not easy."

Khadija Gbla arrived in Australia in 2001 as a refugee from Sierra Leone.

When Khadija Gbla was 13, life was not turning out how she had expected. Having arrived in Australia in 2001 as a refugee from Sierra Leone, Gbla was suffering from depression – she was being bullied at school, was physically unwell, and was suffering from emotional abuse at home.

‘Everything around me literally was falling apart, and I suppose there was this need to escape all of that, and that’s how I got into volunteering,’ Gbla, now 26 years old, says.

Gbla got involved with the Women’s Health State Wide program, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) in 2004, and it became an important turning point in her life.

‘That’s where my leadership potential popped up,’ Gbla says. ‘It wasn’t so much that I wanted to lead, or even that I recognised that I had anything to offer. I just wanted to escape the realities of my life, of a refugee kid living here stuck between two cultures.’

‘I started speaking on just my journey and my experiences and then realised that other people agreed with me, they just didn’t feel as confident in voicing it,’ Gbla explains.

‘Essentially, that’s where the leader was born – it was just having the quality to say, “You know what, if this is bothering me and if I’m going through this, I’m going to speak up and hopefully somebody will hear it”.’

And people did hear. This first step sparked a chain of volunteering and advocacy work that has led Gbla to where she is now – one of Australia’s key voices for young people and migrant youth, with too many honours and achievements under her belt to count.

Gbla has chaired the Minister’s Youth Council, represented Australia at the Harvard National Model United Nations, been awarded a Pride of Australia Young Leader Medal, and joined the Multicultural Human Rights Honour Roll, to name just a few accolades. Somehow, she fits this in around studying Law and International Studies at Flinders University.

Yet, this journey into leadership has not been a smooth one, and the cultural obstacles that have risen as a result of Gbla’s choice to speak out have at times seemed too difficult to overcome.

‘I come from a background where speaking up as a child wasn’t welcome,’ Gbla says.

If we all stood up and said what we experienced, it builds a case on something that before, people would say doesn’t exist. And if it does exist, we can then fight it.’

‘In my culture, adults speak, kids hide away and are not heard. When you are a woman, you don’t speak either. You are inferior, you are a second class citizen, nobody wants to hear what you have to say, you’re not intelligent enough to have an opinion.’

Gbla defied all of these norms from age 13, speaking out about the numerous issues facing the refugee community in Australia, and in doing so, stirred up a level of anger and disapproval from her community that was overwhelming at times.

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‘All they saw was change and change they did not want, change they were not ready for. But most of all, [they saw] a young woman who was not playing by the rules,’ she says.

‘They looked at me and said, “Why is she out and about, constantly having something to say? Shut up and cook, or start having babies!” It was just gendered notions of what a woman should be, or certainly what a young woman should be.’

To this day, the cultural backlash against Gbla continues to be a problem. However, rather than discouraging her, this criticism only reinforces her belief in what she does.

‘I think sometimes, we as young women, we have it harder. If a young boy is in a leadership position, it is completely different the way everybody responds to them,’ Gbla says.

That’s why Gbla is committed to improving the conditions for young women from culturally diverse backgrounds, when it comes to gaining leadership positions. She sees the combined issues of language barriers, a lack of cultural support, and a lack of ethnic role models creating an environment that is not inclusive of young migrant and refugee women, particularly when it comes to taking up leadership roles.

Part of this, Gbla says, is down to young women reclaiming feminism and fighting for their own representation.

‘I think sometimes young women just don’t want to fight, sometimes it’s easier to say “yes it’s happening, too bad, I don’t see what we can do”,’ she says.

‘Speaking up is probably my leadership style. If I see something that is not right, I will speak up – some people call that having a ‘big mouth’ but that is what I am like! It is not easy though – speaking up is not the easiest thing to do.’

Gbla’s advice to young women is to remember that they are not only speaking up for themselves, but for all young women in Australia.

‘If we all stood up and said what we experienced, it builds a case on something that before, people would say doesn’t exist. And if it does exist, we can then fight it.’

Khadija Gbla is speaking at the She Leads conference in Canberra on May 13. See more on the event here

Zoya is a writer and editor, and communications professional with YWCA Canberra. She is part of the organising team of the She Leads Conference. She is also the editor of @feminartsy, and tweets @zoyajpatel.

Committed to creating the next generation of women leaders, YWCA Australia launched its annual SHE Speaks survey on International Women’s Day in an effort to gain insight into the challenges women face in their leadership pathways and the tools young women need to embark on their own leadership journey. Please take 5 minutes to participate in this important initiative!

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