I am sitting in a room with 24 passionate, motivated, and unique individuals from all 10 ASEAN countries: Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Brunei, and Laos. I hand-picked all of these young adults to travel to Hanoi for a five-day training session called “Gender Dialogues: Engaging ASEAN Youth in Gender Initiatives”, a project created by my host organization, the Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS), in collaboration with the UN Women, Mission of Canada, and VVC. This project aims to increase awareness about gender issues among ASEAN Youth and create a dialogue around how gender discrimination and other gender-related issues can be addressed through regional collective actions (https://csds.vn/4577-2/).

This task was the first given to me when I arrived at CSDS. I was to go through 100 applications and select and interview participants from all over the ASEAN region. As I read through all of the applications, I realized how many young, passionate activists we have all over the world. These are applicants who have worked for multiple NGO’s, government agencies, and even started their own projects and businesses. I felt a pull towards these applicants, and I was excited to be able to interview them and meet them. I was in charge of scheduling interviews, conducting them, and selecting successful applicants. Along with that, I was also in charge of rejecting applicants (which I tried to do in the most encouraging way).

After selecting the applicants, each one completed a small research project in preparation for the training, where they mapped gender issues within their countries. In ASEAN, gender inequality issues are similar across countries, and still prevalent, as I have learned through organizing and participating in this training. Each participant had a unique lens on issues of gender within their respective communities.

Gender Equality is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. The objective is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. According to the United Nations (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/), gender equality is crucial in achieving sustainable development. Around the world, women are still deprived of basic human rights and opportunities and gender-based violence is still present. Women are also still under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes. This issue does not have a simple solution. Instead, it needs to be addressed at the structural and legal level, while also addressing social norms.

During the training, the individual experiences of our participants highlighted the issues present in each country. For example, in the Philippines, Jose, one of our participants, sees LGBTQ+ discrimination as a large issue, especially at his University. He told a story of how the tricycle taxi drivers in his community often refuse or reject service to members of the LGBTQ+ community, or publicly berates them for the sole purpose of humiliating them. In Thailand, another one of our participants named Jidapa explained how social media has made women into an art form and shaped their perceptions of themselves.

CSDS is a non-governmental organization that focuses on empowering youth to become involved in sustainable development initiatives within their communities (https://csds.vn/4577-2/). The capabilities of youth are emphasized. How can youth make a difference in our world today? How does the younger generation influence policy and decision-making? During the “Gender Dialogues: Engaging ASEAN Youth in Gender Initiatives”, CSDS encouraged youth to work from a grassroots level. Each participant created and planned a project that they could implement within their communities to encourage gender equality and change social norms and attitudes. Once the participant’s return to their countries, those who had been selected for funding will implement their projects.

The youth-driven and grassroots approaches that CSDS took with this project are crucial in development, especially development in terms of gender equality because these structures and values have been in place for so long and are very difficult to uproot. According to the United Nations, “providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large » (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/). This was the goal of “Gender Dialogues: Engaging ASEAN Youth in Gender Initiatives”: to introduce this concept to youth activists and engage them in discussions and activities that would increase their knowledge and practical skills on the topic so that they can become catalysts for change in their societies.

“Gender Dialogues: Engaging ASEAN Youth in Gender Initiatives” was a valuable experience for all of the participants involved. Questions about the root causes of gender inequality were discussed and practical tools were introduced that would help youth apply the knowledge they have gained in their everyday experiences and beyond. Although 24 youth doesn’t seem like a lot, real change begins on a small scale.