When I was 15 years old, I joined Youth for Youth, a Romanian non-governmental organization working on youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). I became a volunteer and a peer educator, and I went into the role with very little knowledge about what SRHR even meant. My awareness, self-confidence, and dedication grew with every new volunteer I met, every workshop and training I attended, every outreach activity and session I delivered in high schools, and every young person with a question I could answer.
It was challenging to be a peer educator on SRHR at that young age. My parents, friends and the community around me were casting their protective shield, making it clear to me that they wanted me to prioritize high school studies. “You must make sure that preparing for university admission is your main focus,” they all said to me.
Being a volunteer was something rather new for our generation, and so were civic education, youth rights and the concept of participation. For that reason most of our parents had little knowledge and understanding of why this was important to me and my peers, as participation had political and negative connotations and sex and sexuality were generally a taboo. But I was lucky to have my parent’s trust and support. They played an instrumental role in allowing me to explore, to develop my analytical thinking and leadership skills, to follow the paths I thought were right, and to learn from my own mistakes.
My high school principal and teachers saw my interest in being engaged in different projects and extracurricular activities, my devotion to this cause, and my accomplishments, and they have guided and supported me to pursue my aspirations. When I was 19 years old, I was allowed and encouraged by my parents and teachers to undertake a 3 month youth fellowship in the Peer Education Training and Research Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. I truly believe this was a key milestone and the tipping point in my activism, as the experience and the people I met then shaped my life and who I am today.
When I was young, some of my parent’s friends and some teachers thought I was wasting my time with volunteering instead of studying and said this wouldn’t bring any contribution to building a career path. They advised me and my parents to reconsider my decisions. There still are people who think this and who would not allow their daughters to do the things I did.
Having a supportive environment, one that includes not only your parents, your family members, your teachers and friends, but also the entire community can be life-changing. It can allow girls and young women to pursue their potential, while its absence can hinder their aspirations. And this has a cascading effect on the society and its growth and development.
I see how Romania and the Eastern European region have undergone major transformations when it comes to the concept of volunteering, leadership, and participation. The opportunities for young women and girls to be developing analytical and soft skills, for developing effective interpersonal relationships, for nurturing leadership skills, and enabling them to exercise their rights must continue growing. These opportunities must be inclusive of young women and girls in all their diversity.
As I look back and as I look forward, trust and support remain the key words. This means trust and support from those around us and from within ourselves, as we must believe in our own strength and be driven by our inner voice.
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