Meet Mayela Dayeh, the Australian teen making waves at the United Nations

Mayela Dayeh, student and youth activist. Source: Plan International Australia

16yr old Mayela represented Australia at the UN this week, to present a report by Plan International showing the impact of the pandemic on young women across the globe. She told The Feed what it meant to her to stand up as a young woman of colour.

Not every 16-year-old gets the opportunity to address the United Nation but that's exactly what Mayela Dayeh did on Wednesday night.

"When I actually got told I was going to be the one representing [Australia] I told my friends, half of them didn't believe me," Mayela told The Feed.

The young teen from Sydney was among many young girls and women from a number of countries across the globe who presented the findings of a survey that found women and girls have been disproportionately affected by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The report, conducted by Plan International, surveyed 7,105 young women and girls from Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Spain, the US, France, Vietnam, and Zambia earlier this year. It found nine in ten had experienced medium to high levels of stress and anxiety during COVID-19.

Mayela has been working with the non-for-profit since the beginning of this year and remembers being told there will be "incredible opportunities" for her, and others, throughout the year, for her to apply for.

But she didn't expect to end up at the UN.

"It's just so unimaginable for a 16-year-old to [speak at the UN], and it was absolutely such an honor honestly, to be chosen as one of the youngest people there," she said.

The reason, Mayela says, girls may be disproportionately affected by the pandemic is because their voices and stories have routinely been pushed to the back of the line.

"Not only are we young, but we're also female, which historically has not done many of us favors," she said.

"I understand that there are more pressing matters, I understand that the government is very focused on helping the economy currently...But I think it's time to listen to the girls who have been quiet for so long."

The opportunity means a lot to Mayela, particularly because she says there are a multitude of intersecting experiences for girls, whether they live in developing countries, or are a part of marginalised communities in Australia.

"A lot of countries that we surveyed, that are still developing, have had much higher rates of increases in levels of domestic and sexual violence," she said.

"But in Australia, as well, we've seen a large disparity between girls from ethnic minorities, who pre-COVID, were more likely to be of lower economic status. And then there's the addition of a global pandemic.

"They're all different levels of hardship that girls are going through in Australia, depending on things like ethnicity and economic situation. So it's been, it's been very difficult to try and speak for every single girl."

The nuances of girlhood are something Mayela understands as a young woman of colour. She hopes she can inspire young girls of colour to be able to have their voices heard "at the table in the big leagues like the United Nations."

"God knows me and my sister have had many challenges, many doors slammed in our faces for being girls of color," she said.

"So to be able to say that I've represented Australia at the United Nations General Assembly it's inspiring, even to me, but I hope it inspires other young girls of color to show that change is coming."

Mayela felt for so long she needed to hide her difference, and she says it stems from her experiences from childhood, and the racism she experienced.

"When I was growing up that made me want to restrict that ethnic part of myself and hide away," she said.

"So when I got into high school, and I got older, my school and peers encouraged me to celebrate my diversity."

Mayela says the cohort of youth activists extended that encouragement, and says those "young women have really inspired me to take the fact I am a woman of colour by the horns and show it to the world with pride."

"I wish I could go back to my young self and just tell her that it is going to get better. And you don't have to hide. You don't have to hide yourself anymore for the comfort of others."