The Young Female Leaders Academy, hosted by Politics Plus in Stormont on Thursday 22 October, was a huge success, with over 100 people in attendance from 14 schools and colleges.
The event, compered by David McIlveen MLA for North Antrim, aimed to inspire young women to explore careers in politics and public life and to create awareness of the value women bring to those spheres, particularly important given the continued under-representation of women at local and national levels in Northern Irish politics and public life.
Our opening speaker, Mairead Healy, founder of Future Voices Ireland, spoke candidly and passionately about her own personal experiences of overcoming adversity as well as encouraging the young women to persevere, work hard and fulfil their potential.
Leah McStravick then led with ice-breakers as well as providing mentorship on utilising your strengths to become a better leader.
The participants were then given an opportunity to question MLAs on important issues. The seven MLAs present (Trevor Lunn Alliance, Steven Agnew Green Party, Megan Fearon Sinn Fein, John McCalister Independent, Claire Hanna SDLP, Sandra Overend UUP and Emma Pengelly DUP) were given an opportunity to outline what measures their party is taking to support gender equality. The debate raised issues around gender quotas which sparked discussion across the panel.
Participants then developed ideas for their own Private Members Bill to shape future policy, with the help of invited guests and MLAs at their table. Every table chose to propose legislation on issues which would provide positive change in Northern Ireland which included; lowering the voting age to sixteen, bodily autonomy, marriage equality and equal pay provisions, compulsory political education, support provision for mental health and shared parental leave. Invited guests included Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Laura O’Hare from Northern Ireland Youth Forum, Martina Hanna, Head of Gender Equality and Sexual Orientation Unit, Ivana Bacik, Senator in the Seanad Eireann and Deirdre McMahon, Children’s Law Centre, who each sat at a table with the students and discussed policies.
Guest speaker, Jackie Henry, from Deloitte Belfast, discussed her experiences of working to the top and the variety of role and opportunities waiting for young women to seize.
The last speaker of the day, Ivana Bacik, a Senator in the Republic of Ireland’s Seanad, gave an inspirational speech on the importance of change, challenging gender stereotypes and overcoming barriers to run for election.
Students, guest speakers and MLAs alike wrote their pledges, stating what action they will take to support gender equality.
The feedback from the day was overwhelming with students saying; ‘This was a life changing experience’; ‘Great experience – happy I came here today!’; ‘I really enjoyed being able to speak up and hearing the stories of other successful women’; ‘All the speakers were engaging, a really thought-provoking event’.
Koulla Yiasouma, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People, commented, ‘It was an amazing experience to walk into the Long Gallery and see it full of girls and young women who want to be involved in the political life of Northern Ireland. The young women I spoke to had clearly thought about the issues that mean a lot to them and their peers and covered a range of subjects. I was also delighted that so many MLAs took time to participate in the whole event listening to and engaging with the young women. Congratulations to all involved in such successful event’.