Given the right tools and training, Izza Izelan of WOMEN:girls aims to nurture the next generation of leaders

When she was 12 years old, Izza Izelan started a club called Great Girls Club where she and other girls in her neighourhood created their own great adventures—going up and down hills on their bicycles, selling cookies, and they even have their own march and song. “We were really happy,” reminisces Izza. “We realised that there was no such community for young girls like that, which encourages girls to be active and do sports, so that’s what we did.”

Having gone to an all-girls school and joined the Girl Guides, she hadn’t given a thought about gender disparity until she enrolled into a co-ed boarding school in Pahang. There she noticed that stereotypical views about gender roles ran deep. For instance, class monitors or head students typically had to be boys while girls become the assistants.

Izza recalls signing up for marching band wanting to play the drums but she was told, “You can’t play because you’re a girl.” Girls can only apply for either the clarinet or flute. “So that’s when I started questioning why? I can play the drums, too! But when I got together with my friends from other boarding schools, they said it’s the same thing at their school. Never mind, my spirits were not dampened; I’ll just be the best clarinet player there is.”

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After leaving school she went to Universiti Teknologi MARA to study TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). Here she found a group of like-minded souls that share her belief that girls can do anything. Still, when she ran for student council, she became vice president despite getting the majority vote (no surprises that the president was a guy). She thought: “So it’s going to be like this forever ya? Something is wrong here.”

Her resolve to champion equality and equity for women and girls was cemented when she went to the UK at the height of the #MeToo movement. She was working as a broadcast journalist at Astro Awani at the time and due to her outstanding, award-winning work on case studies and special reports covering women, education and youth, she became a Chevening scholar in 2017 and decided to pursue her master’s in education and international development at University College London.

“When I joined the female NGOs there, I found my voice. That really solidified and cemented my life purpose,” she says, deciding that whatever she does next, it has to revolve around supporting women and girls. Around that time, she founded Geng Gadis, an online community about personal growth and period education. A few years later she launched the Geng Gadis Podcast which she produces and hosts, discussing thought-provoking topics such as racism and the importance of your name.

Fast-forward to the present, Izza, 34, is the executive director of WOMEN:girls, doing exactly what she was meant to do. A believer in lifelong learning and that education is the root of everything, she leads specific programmes targeted at different age groups and needs. For instance, Goal is for girls 18 years and below where they learn important life skills such as how to be independent, confident, healthy, and also be money-savvy. Kejar Kerja is for 18 to 35 year olds—for young women with no SPM certification or tertiary education who are forced to leave school due to financial barriers.

Over the five years they’ve been running the Goal programme, they’ve seen the impact it has had on the girls. “Those who have graduated in the first few cycles, we see them thrive,” says Izza, her pride in the girls apparent. Because they continued to stay in touch with the girls, they can see them progressing in school and in life, their confidence level growing, armed with a can-do attitude.

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“We can tell they are empowered,” says Izza. “When they first joined, they were not sure of themselves. But now, they can say things like, ‘I don’t get to go overseas or get a scholarship but it’s okay, I’m signing up for law school here at UiTM, and I’m going to be the best lawyer ever.’ So that’s what we try to do here—to teach them to be sure about themselves and believe that they can do it.”

Izza laments that she has seen girls waste away their potential because they have to drop out of school and become breadwinners in their families. As Kejar Kerja is an apprenticeship programme, they try to match the girls with mentors from skill-specific industries like F&B, beauty, wellness and spa. She relates one success story of a girl who dreamed of opening a cafe in her hometown of Melaka. After matching her with a mentor from San Francisco Coffee and putting her through an apprenticeship for three months, she’s now a branch manager at the Nu Sentral San Francisco Coffee outlet. She can make a really good drink and has learned to speak some English from that training. “But more so, through that programme, we’ve instilled in her the kind of confidence that makes her feel like ‘Yes, I can actually open my own cafe now.’”

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Curious on where she stands on this subject, I ask if there’s a difference between feminism and women empowerment, to her? She ponders on it for a moment before saying, “I almost never use the word ‘women empowerment'. When people talk to me about equality for example, I don’t think men and women are equal because I think women are so much more superior! I’m going to get hit for this but that’s truly what I believe. Look at the women around you, look at your mom. The very fact that women can bring life to this world is like a step above.

“I don’t really talk about equality because I feel that men and women are wired differently and that’s fine. That’s not the kind of equality I’m trying to fight for. Equality does not equal sameness, what’s more important is equity. Which is, if I deserve to get one pie, I deserve one pie. Women are mostly not getting what they are deserving of; that’s where equity comes in, and that’s where people get it wrong.

“With regard to feminism, I feel that everyone should be a feminist. Feminism in its truest definition is basically believing in this: quality and equity. People think it comes from the word female and therefore you just fight for female rights. It’s not necessarily that; I encourage people to look at the actual definition. Like I said, I don’t really use the words ‘women empowerment’ because I don’t think any woman, that I’ve met at least, needs any kind of empowerment.”

Feminism in its truest definition is basically believing in this: quality and equity.
Izza Izelan

Her story of a young woman she met in a transit home is a prime example. She was 16 going on 17, a victim of rape by a family member. When Izza asked her what her plan is going to be, the girl said she will take her SPM so she can get a better job. Why? Because she wants to apply to a certain company that her friend is working in, seeing how her friend became a manager after two years, earning a salary of RM2,000. To her, this sum of money is a lot, saying “That’s more than enough for me and my son.”

Impressed by this girl’s resolution, Izza says, “You see, women are already empowered. When they are given adversities or challenges, they will know what to do. They have that in them, that superpower they can unlock automatically that when something happens, they’ll do what’s right—for themselves, their kids, whatever.

“What we actually need are opportunities and freedom from judgment when making our own decisions to do what we think is best for us. Girls are starting to sharpen up their superpowers; for women, they already have that. For me in my job, whether in WOMEN:girls or Geng Gadis, I try to help them see that they have that power in them. Give them the right tools, the right training, what kind of support they need, I give that so they can go out and then inspire others in their community.”

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She admits that sometimes she questions herself if she’s doing enough for these kids, but she’s heartened by how the girls in her programmes are thriving and inspiring their community, like 11-year-old Nur Afia Qistina, who was one of their Young Changemakers awardees. The daughter of a tailor mother and rubber tapper father, she learned to sew PPEs when she was nine so she can help the frontliners in her hometown of Negeri Sembilan. Her story got picked up by local and international news outlets like The New York Times and South China Morning Post and she also won an education fund from Dutch Lady’s JutaHarapan campaign.

“I try to remind myself that even though I feel as though I didn’t do much, this little push I gave helped them get what they deserve through our programmes,” says Izza. “Right now, if people ask me, what am I working towards? It’s simple, I want to see the first female prime minister of Malaysia. I know she’s going to come up from one of our programmes, because I’m trying to shape them to be [leaders]. I don’t expect it to happen tomorrow, I know it’s going to take time. For me to see that happen in my lifetime, I’ve got to nurture them now.”

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