What Inspires Me: Unleashing My Voice & Empowering Others to Do So
Navigating the intricate world of international development, it’s crucial to shed light on voices that have remained in the shadows for far too long. And this starts with finding and unleashing our own!
This piece aims to share a story about discovering one’s voice and how it can change things, especially for women in development.
Finding My Voice
For most of my life, I held back from speaking up—an experience that I’m sure resonates with many, particularly women. Back in high school, I was drawn to join debates. However, once it came to it, I only voiced a fraction of my thoughts. The rest stayed locked inside, echoing silently in the solitude of my room as I conversed with my own reflection in the mirror.
This self-imposed silence weighed heavily on me, eroding my self-esteem and leaving me with a sense of unfulfilment. Growing up in a society that prized humility and restraint, I internalised the belief that my voice was worth less than silence.
Breaking free from this belief seemed impossible–until a crucial realisation struck.
The Turning Point: Validation and Empowerment
My pivotal moment arrived when people I trusted assured me that my words held value. It wasn’t a solitary incident; it took several respected voices to repeat it for me to believe it. I’ll forever be grateful to those who supported me; they played a significant role in my career.
Working for a brand that encouraged self-expression, particularly for young girls (Girl Effect), brought to light a stark incongruence in my own behaviour. I realised that my actions needed to align with the values I was promoting.
Growing up in Ethiopia, saying something different often led to mockery or being labeled as a show-off. I heard the phrase “endet endet new miyaregat,” which roughly translates to “look at how she’s acting,” said in a mocking tone far too many times to ignore. The absence of encouragement during our school years leaves deep scars. The fear of judgment, mockery, or missed opportunities can lead to anxiety and self-doubt. In Ethiopia, as in many places, being humble and quiet is seen as virtuous, but it can stifle our ability to express ourselves.
The struggle would be on multiple levels: Firstly, by convincing myself that I should raise my hand and say something in the first place. There will be a constant battle in my mind as to whether what I want to say is worth saying. Next came the feeling in the pit of my stomach as the anxiety of how what I say will be received hits. And last but not least, my throat would close up, in the final phase of this social anxiety.
Eastern cultures speak of the throat chakra as being an important part of communicating well. Think of a chakra as something inside you connected to your ability to speak your mind and feelings. When it’s not working right, it’s like having a lump in your throat when you want to talk but can’t find the words. Understanding this helped me see that my struggles were not unfounded or something I could easily wipe away at any moment.
As I progressed in my career and moved into a leadership position, I found myself leading a team of amazing young women who faced the same issues I had encountered. Despite my efforts to be the voice that helps them break free from their constraints, I realised it would take more than one person to make a real difference. We all need to understand the context we work in and what it takes to ensure everyone’s full participation.
Even though I’ve come a long way, I still struggle when I need to speak up. I have to convince myself to do it, and my throat still often tightens with anxiety. I still battle feelings of unworthiness. However, one audience at a time, I strive to get better and do better for those I work with and for.
A Call to Action: Amplifying Voices in Development
Our world needs more voices to address global issues and create a fairer world for women. We must ensure unrestricted, meaningful, and accessible participation in discussions and decisions.
And this doesn’t just mean getting them at the table/chair/zoom or to stand up in a meeting! It means understanding the context we are working in and pushing when we need to, becoming the voice of encouragement, and ensuring we are nurturing an environment that encourages even the most choked up to speak up because what they say matters!
Together, we can create a more equal and empowered world for everyone.
Liya has worked in the entertainment-based social behavior change space in Ethiopia for the past 10 years. Under her guidance, Yegna (Girl Effect’s adolescent-facing brand in Ethiopia) has consistently fostered lasting transformation for adolescent girls throughout the country.
Her journey with Girl Effect commenced in 2014, during which she embraced multiple roles within the organisation, including responsibilities in brand and communications, serving as a producer, as a Deputy Country Director, and then as the Country Director for the past 3 years.
In 2022, Liya made an exciting transition to the Girl Effect global team in the United States, where she assumed the roles of Country Lead and Special Initiative Director and later in July 2023 to Global Production Director working across multiple countries. Her extensive experience, unwavering commitment, and global perspective continue to be valuable assets in her new capacity, as she contributes to the organisation’s broader mission. In her free time, Liya co-leads her daughter’s Girl Scout group and enjoys supporting other young leaders find their voice.