Are you a staff member or board volunteer in a local YWCA in Canada? Are you a woman or gender-diverse person aged 30 or less? Are you passionate about creating more spaces and meaningful leadership experiences for young women in the YWCA movement? If you answered yes to these questions, this blog post for you.
Meet an exceptional young Pakistani-Canadian Muslim woman, Eraj Waqar, who is making a significant impact in the realms of gender equality and sustainable development.
Eraj is a YWCA Canada’s Leadership Program Alumna and describes herself as a community worker. She has been involved in many youth engagement community programs at YWCA Canada, World YWCA, as well as working with United Way of GTA as a South Asian community engagement committee member. Eraj is dedicated to promoting the active involvement of women at all levels, from local communities to the global arena. She understands that gender equality is not merely a lofty goal but a crucial requirement for a more equitable world. She volunteers with YWCA Canada and is a member of the Young Women’s Leadership and Engagement Committee (YWLEC), having attended the 67th UNCSW in 2023 through our Leadership Miles program. Recently, Eraj participated at the 30th World YWCA Council in November 2023.
In a recent interview with Eraj Waqar, she emphasized the crucial need to empower and elevate the voices of young individuals, particularly marginalized women and girls.
1. Can you tell us how you learned about the opportunity to attend the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and what motivated you to get involved?
I joined YWLEC in October 2022 and before that I was part of YWCA Canada’s Think Big Lead Now Leadership program. After the program ended, I contacted Jenny Cloutier in the National Office because I wanted to stay involved with YWCA Canada as the organization’s goals and mission resonated strongly with me. A call out was sent out to young leaders in the YWCA movement to attend CSW 67th in March 2023. I was excited to apply and got selected.
The Young Women’s Leadership & Engagement Committee, or YWLEC, is formed by staff members, board members, and allies from our member associations across the country. Its purpose is to prioritize and facilitate young women and gender-diverse leader’s engagement and leadership opportunities at the local and national levels. The committee’s ultimate goal is to effectively share power with, engage, and support young women and gender-diverse people of diverse communities, backgrounds and identities to participate as leaders, decision-makers and equals at all levels of an inclusive movement.
2. How would you describe your leadership journey so far?
Over time, I have gained confidence to show up and speak in public spaces. I realized that one should play their part well and speak whatever they stand for. Opportunities are like learnings to me, and I always want to learn and never consider myself perfect or excellent at something. But the way I show up in spaces has changed with UNCSW, as I am able to instill other people with hope and confidence to grow and rise. I mentor young women through different mentorship programs so that they can also channel their own journey.
The Young Women’s Leadership Miles Fund was created to support young women and gender-diverse leaders’ attendance and leadership at regional, national and international events within the movement.
3. Can you highlight a specific moment or discussion in CSW that left a long-lasting impression on you and how did that impact your perspective on gender equality and empowerment?
This experience was very emotional and empowering for me. I was very fortunate to attend the main General Assembly on International Women’s Day on March 8. I still remember a line from the CSW which says that girls should have equal access to technology so that their talent and potential can be unleashed. We are very fortunate, but we should never forget that women in different parts of the world are still struggling as they do not have equal access to education, opportunities and basic rights. The women in CSW were from across the world and they motivated me as they shared their personal stories of making huge positive impacts in their communities with limited resources and while overcoming struggles. There was a 17-year-old girl, and she was the youngest to feature in Times magazine for her interest in STEM. She had a deep interest in Chemistry since she was 4 years old, and she carried on her passion. These stories and struggles stuck with me, and I learnt that if we do not like something, we must try to change or speak about it; and one should never give up on their dreams and passion.
4. Your personal background as a young Muslim Pakistani-Canadian woman brings a unique lens to your advocacy. How do you believe the voices of marginalized women and girls, like yourself, can contribute to shaping meaningful change in the pursuit of gender equality?
I came to Canada when I was in Grade 5, and I could not connect with people as they all spoke a different language and the culture was entirely different so I could not connect well. It took me a lot of time to exactly understand and feel that I was a part of this community and culture. My focus from the last three years has been on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and one of my major learnings was code switching, which is putting on different masks to fit in in different environments and adjust to the new culture. Sometimes, you must be the first one to start or say something in a group of new people so that the struggle is not the same for others. I had a passion for community, and I didn’t find many people with the same interest so I learnt through my own self-discovery, and I believed that one must always learn and re-learn.
Since our inception, YWCA has been a movement driven by young women’s energy, skills, resources, intelligence and passion. We are an organization that engages young women at both the programming and leadership levels. Our girls’ programs serve over 25,000 across the country each year and each individual YWCA Member Association board is committed to being comprised of at least 25% young women aged 30 or younger when appointed.
At YWCA Canada we enhance young women’s leadership by providing a platform to stretch beyond comfort levels, practice leadership skills and to raise their voices on the issues they identify as important.
5. Reflecting on your experience with CSW and the YWCA movement, what words of wisdom would you offer other young women and gender-diverse youth who aspire to engage in advocacy for gender equality?
I will say that you will not always find people with your own mindset or who support the same cause, so just look for people who can work with you or mentor/support you by sharing their own experiences to help you learn from the journey they have been through. Use social media to your advantage and reach broader communities to connect with like-minded people. Do not be afraid of rejections as success comes from failure and criticism. The opinions of others should not change the way you look at yourself as you should be self-confident and must always follow what is right for you and the broader community. To finish, I will say to learn from your mistakes and be eager to learn and rise always.
YWCA Canada will open the Leadership Miles Call for Application for UNSCW68 and the 2024 Annual Members Meeting (AMM) on December 11th, 2023.