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Young woman of influence admits to secret battle

28 November 2016

Category Winners

Caitlin Figueiredo (second from left with 2016 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence winners) admits growing up for her was a battle. She suffered from chronic illness, missing around three years of school, repeating year 11, and was informed by her teachers she would be lucky to pass, let alone enter university. A diagnosis of depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorder added further complications to her life, while her unconventional approach to being who she is - a young woman who believes in equality and justice – left her open to bullying at school. However, it was the secret Caitlin kept until she was around 18 years old that she believes did her the most damage.

At the recent Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards, Caitlin’s acceptance speech for Young Leader had the crowd all ears and on their toes clapping. She spoke passionately for the right of every girl to be free to express and be who they are – for gender equality. In her speech, which she admits was unprepared because she had no idea she could win, she also spoke publicly about her years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of a relative – a secret kept for a long time.

“It began when I was little,” Caitlin tells me as we chat about her life and her remarkable on-stage unburdening.

“My abuser and her partner picked their times and it always looked like an ‘accident’. I learned to accept that explanation, even when she tried to drown me.”

At around 12, Caitlin began to realise and accept the abuse wasn’t ‘accidents’, but by then she was unable to admit what was happening - too confused and fearful.

“They targeted me because I was a girl and I was independent and I stood up for injustice. I was never one to remain silent and for my abusers, this was something they tried to beat out of me.  My experience with that violence from a very young age, and my inability to defend myself, made me powerless to face the abuse, and also the bullying I went on to experience at school.

“One of my challenges has been to deal with the misconception that I was not a ‘real girl’ because I did not fit society’s gender stereotypes and because I was told by my abusers that I was not. Everything - advertising, social media, celebrities and my abusers - led me to believe a ‘real girl’ was delicate, submissive, quiet and thin, always wore pretty clothes/makeup and conformed to social trends. I was also told my only job in life (as a girl) was to be seen and not heard, get married and reproduce. I wasn’t anything like those stereotypes and my internal struggle with my own worthiness is the result,” says Caitlin.

“From 12 to 18 I kept my abuse a secret,” she says, and then a light snapped on.

A combination of factors, including wanting her grandmother to be proud of her, caused Caitlin to rethink the path she was taking, which was “very dark”.

Now 21, this year Caitlin became the youngest Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award winner. Caitlin was awarded Young Leader for her contribution to positive change for youth, gender equality and sustainable development.

Earlier this year, Caitlin was invited to the White House where she was named Global Change Maker for Global Equality by Michelle Obama. Currently, she works as the Australian Director of The Global Resolutions Project, a new social impact initiative for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and at the United Nations as a member of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force for Youth Development.

She has also founded Pakistan’s first Arts for Peace initiative with a friend, Francis Ventura.

Peshawar Arts for Peace aims to bring communities together and to empower women and youth through creative peace building. Using the Arts to promote education and build cultural links between Pakistan and Australia, the program empowers and improves the employability of women in Peshawar by giving them skills and confidence.

Caitlin describes herself as a “passionate change maker”. She founded World Vision’s youth movement, VGen, in Canberra, having missed out on a job with the organisation in Sydney when she was around 18 years old.

“I was travelling to play basketball in NSW and was going back and forward between there and my home in the ACT when I saw this position available to work with World Vision in NSW. I impressed them enough for them to ask me to start a chapter of the organisation in the ACT and that was life changing for me. I found my passion. I met people. I wanted to make a change and a difference,” she explains of the way the World Vision opportunity helped her to get back on track.

In her position with World Vision, Caitlin travelled to Cambodia to help establish the country’s first Youth Leadership Council, attend the Australian and Cambodian Youth Forum, visit World Vision’s development programs and continue advocating for the end of child labour.

To get into university and into Law, Caitlin admits, she had to study like a demon. Her parents, she explains, had moved her to a public school in the ACT, and supported her with a tutor. She is now in her second year of a Law degree at ANU.

“Two of my friends, past 100 Women of Influence winners, encouraged me to nominate for the awards. I couldn’t see how what I was doing qualified me but they broke my work down with VGen and Peshawar Arts for Peace to show me how I was using my influence to make a difference,” Caitlin continues.

“When they called out my name as the winner, I looked out into the audience and saw Natasha Stott Despoja [Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls] and I felt inspired to tell the truth and admit publicly what had brought me to where I am now.”

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