Meet four dedicated Australian women changing the face of activism

Article by The Age  /
June 02, 2017  /
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Being an activist once meant chaining yourself to trees, marching through the streets with placards or penning hundreds of letters. However the face of activism is changing as passionate campaigners grab attention for their cause on new platforms. University of Melbourne social scientist Lauren Rosewarne says the rise of identity politics has led to activism on issues that were previously considered niche and that technology has broken down barriers to women’s participation in activism.

“Someone whose issue would never have received attention in mainstream media can now get attention online,” Rosewarne says. “The internet has levelled the playing field and given women spaces to broadcast their causes.” We speak to four women who are championing issues close to their heart.

Josie Pohla, 16, NSW

After her mother’s suicide, Josie started an online petition and wrote to the NSW government, which led to the inclusion of material on domestic violence in the high school syllabus.

“I was 14 when my mum passed away. Her death was mainly caused by domestic violence, because it just left her with no hope of a better life. I thought domestic violence was normal and something that goes on in everyone’s house.

After my mum died, I was very sad for a long time and I didn’t want anyone else to suffer like I had, so I made a petition. I thought that kids needed to know that domestic violence is wrong.

I thought an online petition would be the best way to get the issue out there. I was living with my grandma at the time and had to use her laptop. I told her I had posted it and she freaked out! I got over 100,000 signatures and had so much support and messages from people telling me about their personal experiences of domestic violence.

I wrote a letter to the government and met with NSW minister Pru Goward. She put the petition on her website and it gained even more supporters. And then it was confirmed that the Prevention of Domestic Violence Program was going to be put into schools.

That was a surreal moment. I felt happy and proud, like I was helping someone. If I’d had access to a course like this, I would have been able to speak to someone and not just think domestic violence was a normal part of life. I’ve been taught the program in class. It was funny – I was thinking, ‘I started this, and now I’m being taught it!’ My grandma is really proud of me.”

Carly Findlay, 35, Victoria

Writer, disability and appearance activist.

“I have a skin condition called ichthyosis and it means my face is very red. I look sunburnt. My mum is black and my dad is white but I never feel either colour.

I didn’t always identify with having an illness or a disability. I wanted to fit in. But in the last eight to 10 years, I’ve met more people with disabilities and facial differences and realised that even though we don’t all have the same diagnoses, we have similar experiences.

If I’m in a shop, people often say, ‘Oh, what happened to you?’ The response I give depends on the way they’ve set the tone. Most of the time I’m genuinely okay with saying, ‘I was born like this.’ But there is an expectation that we will educate at all times and I’m not a fan of that. It gets exhausting and I want to have control over how I do that. I want to get people who look different better represented in the media. I’ve done this through writing my own stories, but also by including other people’s stories on my blog and sharing success stories of people who look different.

I did an interview on the ABC a few years ago and the journalist called me an ‘appearance activist’ and I just claimed it. I talk about facial diversity and positive image, but I’m not necessarily setting fire to things and being an activist in that way! Years ago I never thought anyone like me would be in the media.

Anyone can be an activist. There’s a bit of an expectation that you have to take part in marches and physical events, but being online is a really great way for people to be an activist from anywhere. I write a lot of my articles from my bed!

With the advent of social media, if you get your name out there through writing, blogging or podcasting and make yourself known through your own platform, then you’ve got control over your message. What I love is that it’s not just people writing about us any more. It’s people like us writing for us.”

Mariam Veiszadeh, 32, NSW

Lawyer, Muslim community advocate and Daily Life’s Woman of the Year, 2016.

“I was fed up with critiquing the state of affairs from the comfort of our armchairs and then complaining about why nothing ever changes. I refuse to sit back and retire into a state of despair. When you or someone you know is subjected to Islamophobia on a regular basis, you can’t simply ignore it. It is deeply personal.

I felt it was incumbent on me to do whatever I could to help raise awareness about it, assist the victims of it and try and tackle it head on. I never had the luxury of approaching this as an extra-curricular activity. I’ve almost always worked full time and any advocacy I’ve engaged in has always been on top of my day job.

I needed to be a voice for those who couldn’t raise theirs. The values embedded within my faith and my upbringing have taught me that you must use your own relative levels of privilege to help those who have none.

The personal cost of publicly advocating in an increasingly hostile environment with little or no resourcing, funding or protection, has been too much to bear, which is why I recently made the decision to transition out of my formal advocacy roles.

Social media has become a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, it’s been instrumental in allowing me to take my advocacy work to the masses. And on the other hand, it’s made me vulnerable to threats from those who harbour ill intentions. My life is not the same as it used to be. I now have to take rather significant security precautions. I have to worry about things that others simply take for granted.

Some of the best things about being a public advocate is the ability to influence people’s hearts and minds by offering them insights into the life of an everyday, Australian Muslim woman.

To women who want to speak out for something they really believe in, I would say to persevere. It can be a thankless job and you will face challenges, but remember that the wrongs committed against us should never change our moral compass. Do as much or as little as you can – if you do not see results immediately, rest assured that you have planted the seeds for tomorrow.”

Natalie Parker, 34, Northern Territory

Advocate for better protection of IVF embryo donors, early childhood teacher.
Natalie Parker is a advocate for better protection of IVF embryo donors, early childhood teacher. Photo: Glenn Campbell

My husband and I had embryos left over from IVF and we decided to donate them. We also wanted to keep in touch with the recipient family.

During mandatory counselling we met the recipient and her husband, and she said she would send us photos and even fly to Darwin for us to meet the baby. Then I didn’t hear from her.

In 2015, the clinic informed me the recipient had transferred two embryos that had failed and that the recipient had decided she didn’t want to use the last embryo. I wondered why, because they were desperate to have a child.

Then I saw on Facebook that she’d had a baby about nine months after the embryos were transferred. So I rang the clinic and was told that the recipient hadn’t come in for a blood test to confirm her pregnancy because she said she’d experienced bleeding.

Because the clinic had no record of her pregnancy, it didn’t pass on the details to the NSW central registry. The registry is set up so donor children can access their birth details, but it relies on the honesty of all involved.

I contacted lots of people because these organisations have a responsibility for the children they help to create. IVF’s governing body in Australia is updating its code to ensure that if a recipient doesn’t come back for a blood test, their information will be passed on to the donor registry. This means donor children’s rights will be upheld.

I felt a sense of achievement because, for IVF clinics to be accredited, they need to follow those rules. My advocacy has been a positive way to channel my energy, but at times it’s been exhausting. However, I feel a sense of responsibility for the children. They have the right to know their true identity.