An important factor to note in reflecting on my experience at WEP Conference is the fact that I am extremely introverted. Sometimes I find it difficult to be in social situations, and I suffer from sporadic episodes of anxiety, for no reason at all. When I was asked to attend the Conference my immediate reaction and response was to adamantly decline, then, later on, after some gentle persuasion, I agreed to go.
It wasn't that I didn't want to go, it is just that I was terrified about being surrounded by so many people. My aforementioned anxiety usually dictates what I do, but, in an attempt to overcome it, I try to challenge myself to do things which take me out of my comfort zone. I was also curious about why such a Conference was necessary in 2016!
So having agreed to attend the Conference I did, and I can confidently say that it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The unity of women, the immense support from each individual, was something insanely beautiful. The fact that women are under siege in so many aspects of their lives, and have managed to turn relentless prejudice into a positive political stand, is frankly extremely commendable. I for one was very proud to be a woman and even prouder to be there in a sea of women. It wasn't just that there were women there, but a diverse array of people from all walks of life, facing individual challenges every day, celebrating and just full of energy had come together to be a part of creating an equal future for everyone.
The Conference included an open mic session during which anyone, who wanted to, could go on stage and have their say. When it came to going on stage I didn't even consider volunteering. Though my Mum tried to encourage me to share something, I was firmly rooted in the idea that I just wanted to sit back and blend in. A woman in front of us overheard our conversation and joined in trying to convince me to get on stage. I smiled but continued to decline...I was steadfast. The woman then went on stage to speak, and as she encouraged women to bring someone with them next year - each one bring one, to my absolute horror, described the circumstances of my refusal to go on stage. Though I didn't know it when the woman went on stage, her decision to share my reluctance was one of the greatest kindnesses any stranger has ever bestowed on me. When she returned to her seat my Mum and I thanked her, and I thought that was the end of it.
But it was not...it was just the beginning...After speaking to the woman who had relayed my story to the audience...Sandi Toksvig approached me and encouraged me to go on stage. Needless to say I was very nervous and hesitant...but I did go! I felt shaky and sweaty palmed and I wondered if my knees would make the steps...I did not even want to think about the sea of women I mentioned earlier - the room was full to bursting.
Flanked by another woman who having expressed her own nervousness about speaking on stage earlier and Sandi Toksvig I was escorted onto the stage where I proceeded to stumble over the words " My name is 'Charlie' and I'm just really glad to be here". It wasn't eloquent, it wasn't thought out, these were not the words that people would necessarily remember as a part of their Conference experience BUT, they were the only words that came to me, and so those were the words that marked my stage debut in front of what might well be the largest audience I would ever address in my whole life!
The audience responded with thunderous applause and some people even stood up for me. For me! This response from the crowd was overwhelming and I felt a part of something. I knew in that moment that it was not my words that mattered most, or that which everyone was cheering on, but my journey which started with a no about attending the Conference at all, became a yes as my interest was peaked and I felt that I should challenge my anxiety, to being resolute about my refusal to go on stage until I was supported to do just the opposite...it was the journey.
I had come to WEP Conference to challenge myself and find out why in 2017 women felt the need to have a party with gender equality as their main agenda, and instead discovered that I was capable of far more than I ever knew. I felt supported and nurtured and special and important. I felt the women spur me on and wish me well and realised that the gender equality agenda was about making things better for women everywhere, and that included me, and of women generations to come. I felt a sense of history of being in an important moment in time. I will never forget that moment on stage. I am so very glad that I went up and was a part of something important and special. Thank you mum. Thank you WEP. Thank you to the woman who mentioned me on stage; Thank you Sandi Toksvig; Thank you to the other woman whose name I do not know. Thank you to all the women who I went on the trip with too! Thank you to all the women and girls who went beofre me... Thank you Heritage Lottery Fund for literally making this journey possible :-)