With the abundance of programmes, campaigns and opportunities aimed at inspiring and educating us fickle youth it can sometimes be tempting to just throw it all in and hide under your duvet for a while until the altruism goes away. Despite occasionally experiencing this very feeling, I really have to admit that the Mulberry Conference for Year 12 students like myself, at the marvellous Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, left me with a lasting impression and desire to help others. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘The Power of Voice’ and memorable speakers included Lucy-Anne Holmes from the No More Page 3 campaign and Rahima Begum, founder of Restless Beings which is an international human rights organisation which aims to ‘voice the voiceless’.

As the daughter of a journalist I am well aware of the effect the media can have, but this day showed me, in a way that hadn’t been emphasised before, just how our generation can use the same tools our parents yell at us for ‘wasting time on’ for good. One speaker whose comments on this subject were very eloquently put was Lucy-Anne Holmes from ‘No More Page 3’. I had actually already signed this petition, along with 186,186 others, against the Sun newspaper’s use of the famous page 3 but I am ashamed to say that before the conference I hadn’t actually given much thought to why this cause was important. It probably says a lot about the society I live in that until I was pushed, I didn’t think of the sexualisation and objectification of women in a family newspaper as wrong or worrying- although stories like survivors of rape stating their attackers mentioned page 3 has now definitely changed my mind. One interesting thing Lucy-Anne mentioned was the role of modern technology in getting her voice out there- without sites like Change.org, Facebook and Twitter, she said, she didn’t believe her campaign would have been so powerful. Her achievements include getting the Irish Sun dropping Page 3. Our generation, therefore, might be riding on a new wave of ‘using your voice’ which relies more on the phone on your hand instead of the banner.

Another organisation employing modern technology to access the power of voice is ‘Restless Beings.’ Their motto- ‘Voice the voiceless’- increases in importance and poignancy when you learn what they do. At the conference we were shown a video created by ‘Restless Beings’ entitled ‘Rohingya- The Forgotten People’ and the title is nothing but apt. The UN describe the Rohingya, an ethnic group which has suffered years of abuse by the Burmese state, as ‘one of the most persecuted communities in the world’, but awareness of them in the Western world is next to none. In fact Rahima told us that until Restless Beings covered the crisis national news agencies weren’t talking about this group at all. Restless Beings are also giving a voice to the Kyrgyzstan women who suffer thanks to the horrific practise of non-consensual Ala Kachuu. Heard of it? Probably not. Ala Kachuu (bride kidnapping) was something of a personal project for Rahima who had taken time off work to go and research what was happening to these women, forced into marriage without consent. What she found out provoked shock and anger in me in equal measure. Ala Kachuu has a romantic origin where both parties consented to the marriage and the groom came to take away his bride from her family, but it has evolved into something more sinister. Young, poor Kyrgyzstan men kidnap young women, usually university students, because they can’t afford a dowry and because they know the family of the women will usually feel obliged to respect the ‘marriage’ once it has taken place. This practise, spotlighted by Restless Beings, leads to a life of misery and missed opportunities for the women involved. 

As both these speakers showed the value and power of our voices is often underestimated until it is taken away. What these speakers are doing with their voices now can sometimes feel beyond the reach of us teenagers while we balance home, school and working out what kind of adult we want to be. Because of this I was drawn to the use of poetry, a method which I have returned to again and again to release my voice and which was explored in a workshop at this conference. Exploring how art can be used to fight human rights transgressions we looked at spoken word poetry like ‘Skinhead’ by Patricia Smith which explored racism with the evocative lines “I’m your baby, America, your boy.../And I was born, and raised, right here.” Another set of lines which has stayed with me was from the performance by Spoken Word Poet Bridget Minamore whose poem ‘Breaking News’ included the unforgettable lines “It’s even easy to feel guilty/But it’s much harder to feel at fault.”

Overall this conference was an all-encompassing abundance of inspiration, courage and variety from people who differed in age, race and background but who were united with a desire to know the worth of their voices.  And conversations with fellow students- where subjects ranged from feminism to stops and searches- reassured me that this trend will continue for years to come.