Prove your humanity

I enter the room where the speakers are due to give their presentations, and take a quick scan of my surroundings. A large pink banner reads ‘Welcome to International Women’s Day’ and there is a table with enough colouring-in supplies to sustain a sizable classroom. Across from the table is a display of free period products, a hamper giveaway and stickers with slogans, including ‘my gender is not your debate’ and ‘this is what a feminist looks like’.

Women’s Officer Cassidy Pemberton walks over to give her speech and everyone moves in a little closer.

Cassidy speaks about the body shaming and fatphobia she was subject to in school and, with this, the rippling effect it has had on her mental health. Openly sharing her ongoing journey with depression and anxiety, her raw and at times unsettling personal account of these experiences leaves nothing to the imagination. Aware of her advocacy role within the Guild, she uses this opportunity to encourage women to do their research before going to their doctors for professional help, and reaching out to loved ones for help.

“Lean on your support network as much as you can; My Mum’s always been there to help, but I also have this thing where I want to go [to doctor’s appointments] alone. It can be hard to use your family and friends, but you should reach out because they can really help you.”

Her speech sifts in and out of self-deprecation, from accepting slurs hurled at her in primary school, to sharing dark thoughts that pervade her mind today. But this is no pity party. Cassidy’s words echo a growing choir that struggles against a generation obsessed with the Instagram aesthetics of edited photographs and unrealistic body expectations for women. Slowly, but surely, these voices are growing louder and Cassidy’s speech is a prime example of this.

Another woman who uses her voice to kick down walls is Ashlee Harrison, founder and CEO of zero2hero. Confident and with a calm air about her, Ashlee shares with us her path in establishing zero2hero which is an organisation that helps equip children and teenagers with the means to feel educated and empowered to deal with mental health issues. Passion glows in Ashlee’s eyes as she focuses her speech on the events and camps that her organisation runs for youth, believing that through communication suicide can be prevented.

She laughs and shakes her head when recounting a Melbourne Cup Day event she organised for zero2hero in the organisation’s early days, and how it landed her in thousands of dollars’ worth of debt.

“Instead of coming out of that event with a profit, I ended up having to take out a personal loan when I was in my early twenties and still studying at university. I lost touch with what I was doing and it became more about the event than the purpose of the event.”

Ashlee shares the details of her most notable ‘failure’ to remind the audience that failure is necessary to succeed. She emphasises that this is actually one of the most important steps in her journey to getting zero2hero off the ground.

Without this (big at the time, but now relatively small) bump in the road, Ashlee doubts whether she would have been able to create the effective organisation that zero2hero is today. With perseverance, dedication and resilience, zero2hero has reached over 22,000 students each year and teaches hundreds of youth suicide prevention (safeTALK), as well as hosting camps, events and fundraisers with the shared goal of preventing suicide and eliminating the stigma around mental illness.

Last but certainly not least is Lena Van Hale, general manager for sex worker support project, Magenta. Lena is tall and wavy locks of hair gently fall around their face as they looks down at their notes and begin to address the audience.

“I am a semi-retired sex worker and I want to talk to you about how you can defy categorisation and reject stereotyping by just existing in any given space in society.”

Lena has no qualms with discussing their ex-clients, identity as a transgender woman or the discrimination they have faced. Lena speaks about how we can actively negate stereotypes people may have about us (whether about gender, sexuality, clothing choice, or otherwise) just by existing in the same space as them. There’s a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact air to the speech and it encapsulates those who sit in the room, myself included.

Magenta’s mission to improve the health and safety of people involved in the sex industry shines through Lena and you can tell Lena is passionate about this advocacy role. When asked what one of the biggest issues facing women today is and what they want to see in the future, Lena focuses on our mental health crisis.

“There needs to be more targeted funding for mental health services, especially for people who identify as LGBTQI+. We need peer-lead mental health services that are not only run federally but also by the State Governments and locally.”

We applaud the speakers and move outside to the International Women’s Day picnic under the warm sun. These events show young women like me that you can set goals as high as a CEO herself does, you just have to be ready to back them 100% of the way.

Three women of different ages, different periods in their lives and different ways of navigating the world. All women of courage, women with resilience and women who keep pushing against the patriarchy.