A Q&A with award-winning teen celebrity journalist and UN Women advocate Anya Thakur for the Independent Free Press (IFP) by Veronica Appia on her work as a MetoWe partner and the founder of ShePower, a global organization to empower and uplift women and girls.
Q: When did you first start ShePower and how did that come into fruition?
A: My name is Anya Thakur and I am sharing my story with you today as an advocate for UN Women and most importantly, someone with a mission. Through working closely with organizations including the United Nations, UN Women, We Movement and the Jane Goodall Foundation, I am honored to champion global empowerment as a UN Women advocate and further the mission to build a brighter future for millions.
ShePower is a global movement and organization I founded aiming to advocate and uplift women and girls, underrepresented minorities such as Asian-Americans and South and East Asian women and diverse voices. Almost a year ago, I partnered with We Movement and MetoWe to make a difference and shine a light on women’s voices and empowerment and the power they have to uplift their communities. ShePower upholds UN Women’s mission to ensure an equitable future and opportunity for all through fighting for representation and visibility while empowering and elevating. ShePower hosts empowerment, leadership and self-defense workshops for women and girls in Delhi, Mumbai, Coimbatore, and Manipur in India and has spearheaded dozens of outreach efforts. And through creating, celebrating, and curating women’s stories, through ShePower I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and am proud to elevate the voices of women.
Q: Can you speak a little bit about your experience in India this summer?
A: To expand my work with ShePower, I traveled to Delhi, Coimbatore and other parts of Tamil Nadu, Mumbai and Manipur this past summer to empower rural and under-served women and girls. It was an experience as I strengthened my ties to my heritage and homeland as a first generation Indian-American, and an opportunity to lead empowerment and outreach efforts.
Q: How long were you there for?
A: I’ve spent months in India — from Delhi, Coimbatore and other parts of Tamil Nadu, Manipur and Mumbai — making my difference and striving to empower and uplift girls and women through health education, self defense and empowerment workshops helping them to unlock their potential. Each day I was motivated by the incredible women I met and collaborated closely with governmental and women’s empowerment organizations in outreach efforts to lower income or underrepresented areas.
A young woman, in her 20s, escaped a criminal husband and a small village and worked to learn a variety of local languages — from Hindi to Tamil — and found a job as a housekeeper for my relatives. There, they gave her a helmet for when she rode her motorcycle and opened their hearts to her and her children, two young boys. When I met her and learned her story in bits and pieces, filling in the gaps between her native tongue and mine, she had a radiant smile that hid so many struggles and genuine kindness for all despite her circumstances.
Q: What was your ultimate goal?
A: I’ve spent many more months furthering my ultimate goal and UN Women’s mission to create a world of equality and opportunity by launching a campaign supporting UN Women to advocate for girls’ education, advocating for representation and visibility of women and Asian Americans in media as a journalist for the LA Times, disseminating over five thousand period pads to women in need.
From the global head of HeforShe Elizabeth Nyamayaro, who I had the opportunity to profile as Medium’s Women’s Voices Editor, to all the interns I’ve connected with at the United Nations who share the dream of eradicating inequality, I am deeply honored to share my work and announce the role I am choosing to take on as a UN Women advocate.
Q: What do you feel you achieved?
A: I achieved something near and dear to my heart — helping to empower and create opportunities for not only women and girls, but people and finding my voice. Now I’m shining a light on women feeling empowered to use their voices.
Q: What did your typical day look like there?
A: No day was typical, but I would constantly have conversations with local women on the challenges they faced and the dreams they had, whether for their careers, their children or their communities. I’d collaborate closely with non-profits and officials to integrate empowerment groups and support systems, have the conversations that mattered and further the United Nations Global Goals.
The little girls would always come up to me and of course we laughed and bonded. Throughout it all I also wanted to impart a deeper message of substance and vitality and help them to fight social ignominy and child marriage or lack of opportunities by hailing the importance of girls’ education.
I remember when I was leaving one day, a girl came up to me and told me she wanted to be like me one day. I felt incredibly grateful, but I told her I hoped she wanted to be like herself and know her value. Touching other people like that is just so amazing.
Q: Can you speak a little bit about the work you do with Halton Women’s Place and Halton Women’s Centre?
A: When we empower and uplift women and girls, we empower communities globally. I’m honored to support the work of community organizations such as Halton Women’s Place and Halton Women’s Centre and was originally drawn to the area because my aunt and uncle live in Canada. I chose to partner with community organizations because I wanted to be as hands on as possible and go on the ground to further my work as a UN Women advocate and connect on an individual level. These women are part of an incredibly diverse community and striving to make a better life for themselves.
Q: When did you begin working with those organizations?
A: This came about on a trip to Canada when I was just seven going on eight and I began to seek ways to give back. With ShePower and my role as a UN Women advocate, I began to work with women’s organizations and on a global level.
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: Through ShePower, I was motivated to disseminate health and hygiene products and over five thousand sanitary pads to underserved communities and to women and girls in need in Dallas, Vancouver Ontario and many parts of India. Faced with homelessness and other challenges, women are unable to afford these products and often resort to using abrasive materials such as newspaper or paper bags which can cause abrasions or infections. Funded by United Nations foundations and the Jane Goodall Foundation and donations from outreach efforts I led, I connected with and was able to empower or uplift women and girls in their time of need. By allowing them to focus on their education, careers and maximizing their potential, they can in turn contribute to their families, communities and achieve their personal goals. By empowering women, we are empowering communities, whether mine in Dallas or globally as I continue to do in Canada and India.
My mom and I carefully assembled care packages for distribution of sanitary products, also adding makeup and cosmetics so that women could to take pride in themselves and present themselves how they chose and be confident. And as we disseminated these, along with health information and opportunities for community engagement, the words we exchanged left an indelible impact on me and continue to fuel me.
A woman told me she has a daughter my age and shared how she had come from India to build a better life for herself and give her daughter opportunities she did not have. “I’m not giving up, I’m making the most out of this,” the woman said as we embraced. “I want my daughter to know that, too.”
I thought of my grandma then, who smells like the almond oils from her braids and sweet incense that seeps through her shawls and into her milky skin, speckled with sunspots and light discoloration and whose diaspora will be recounted for generations. As a girl, she fled Pakistan in a crammed bus full of bodies, her heart pounding violently against its cage, during the Partition. Just like the women I spoke with, she had to overcome immense hardships to become the strong woman she is today and raise my dad.
A girl there, just ten years old, who introduced herself to me, was already dreaming of the future and working hard towards an education and had goals to earn a degree to uplift her family. She had moved from Los Angeles, loved chocolate ice cream and I saw parts of myself reflected in her. I’ll never forget how she reminded me of so many of so many of my friends and shared so many of the same dreams.
Q: How did you get involved?
A: Through reaching out — the opportunity to stand upon UN Women’s platform and spearhead a discourse for young women to feel empowered and worthy, to unlock their potential, take the fullest advantage of the opportunities granted to them, and become change-makers is invaluable. I want to share my voice as a voice for the voiceless and champion women and minorities. Outreach is the first step.
Q: What do you want people to know about what you do?
A: At heart I’m a dreamer. But I’m striving to achieve representation and empowerment. The power to influence and enact change with my platform as a UN Women advocate is both gratifying and humbling. Through championing women’s voices, Asian American representation and global change as among the nation’s youngest to be involved with the UN on a global level and as a UN Women advocate, I’ve found my own voice.
As a teen celebrity journalist in the Los Angeles Times, Women’s Voices Editor for Medium, Arts & Entertainment Editor for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, and Arts & Entertainment journalist for LinkedIn, media is an incredible way to share my story and enact change while amassing an audience of tens of thousands of readers and visionaries. And writing with substance and purpose is both freeing and empowering.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I’m immensely proud of how my work has resonated with so many who have reached out to me, from interns at UN Women to young leaders such as Stanford University’s sophomore class president. But I want to reflect on the moments that left me breathless and exultant all because of young girls in rural India. I’m honored to advocate for UN Women and turn my dreams, and those of leaders and luminaries, into a reality and make an impact in the lives of young women and girls.
And as a new advocate for UN Women, it is an honor to join the ranks of luminaries like Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, known for both their body of work and their activism, and continue to create a lasting legacy for this generation. The ideas of Gen-Z and the ideas and talents we are using to organize together and transform our world are reflected in the indelible impact we are having.
Q: How can members of the public help with your initiatives?
A: Seeing my work resonate with, impact others and have the power to enact change is incredibly gratifying and perennially reminds me of the importance of sharing my voice in a vast landscape.
I was recently reached out to by Celine Foster, the Vice President of Marketing for Stanford Women in Business and this year’s Stanford University sophomore class president, for my experience in journalism as she sought advice and expertise on starting an interview series at her school.
I was honored at her praise of my “amazing journalism experience” and told her the importance of pursuing her passions and starting out. And my words are something that I would share with everyone, from the young girls in India who I worked with to my younger self. Our voices are powerful and we should not wait to change the world. And education is education and that is essential to empowerment, whether for the wide-eyed girls in India who nurtured and ignited the tender sparks within themselves once we gave them the matchsticks to make a flame to the interview series that shapes up as I write this. Both burn and flare with potential and possibility from the inside. It’s up to us to allow women and girls everywhere to realize this potential.
Reach out to your local women’s and community organizations to help me further my mission and never doubt your voice is fundamentally valuable and a catalyst for change and find your place as a global citizen.
With my mom and dad, we spent time traveling to underserved places — taking trips to parts of Delhi, Manipur, Mumbai, and Coimbatore, where I saw children in the hot sun and barefoot on the dirt roads, peddling souvenirs for a few rupees to bring home, barely amounting to pennies. My family helped inspire me to be a global citizen, aware of the great diversity in our world and the different challenges and circumstances people face daily.
Seeing such poverty and overwhelming obstacles both humbled and educated me, and my brown eyes burned and were prickled with tears, glazed over with shock and shielded from the hot sunlight pouring down as I raised my arms to shield my face. “You don’t have to be scared, bacha” my mom said. “Be aware and be the change, but don’t be afraid.”
As I pressed paper bills into the hands of a little boy selling miniature plastic replicas of the tremendous mausoleum of the Taj Mahal my family had visited and offered him a smile as his face was awash with gratitude and relief, I wished and yearned to do more. I may not have been able to do it in that moment, but I am striving to now.
I spoke about this for UN Women’s GirlUp Dallas just a year ago. It is a testament to the unyielding spirit I have as a young girl, and the responsibility I feel to grown women and girls everywhere, underscored by my work as an advocate and activist.
Q: What are your plans/goals for the future?
A: Whether the girls I met in India or those on a world stage, global leaders are fueled by energy and compassion to better the world which is why I strive to raise awareness of obstacles many must overcome and opportunities to support equality.
All girls and every child deserves to be healthy, safe, counted and in a position to be in the next generation of leaders.
We see potential leaders everywhere. It’s time for women and girls to see it in themselves. And as a teen celebrity journalist and women’s advocate through UN Women, I am honored to further their mission in creating and making a better and brighter future a reality for millions of girls. When we empower girls hungry for education and opportunity, we can change lives as I’ve experienced first hand.