Working for the cause, not the applause
For many it would be intimidating to keep Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Princess Mary of Denmark in the loop about your work. But for human rights advocate Sheneli Dona, it’s just part of the deal.
At just 20 years of age, Sheneli pairs big ambitions with admirable drive. It’s proven effective, and she has already earned the backing of some powerful supporters who believe in her passion for human rights.
Sheneli, an ACU law and global studies student, started working with the United Nations (UN) when she was 16 years old. Not a common undertaking for your average teenager. She was recently appointed as a Task Force Member for the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality.
“What we do is ensure that gender equality and youth issues are brought to the forefront internationally,” said Sheneli. “Working with governments and NGOs, we make sure that solutions are practical and strategic, and we make them work on the ground level.”
The catalyst for change
Sheneli's journey began at a young age during a visit to Sri Lanka, her native country, where she was exposed first-hand to the marginalisation of young people and women. Not to mention a range of other human rights violations.
She questioned the inequalities between herself and poverty-stricken children. How can some people have so much, and others have to little? This became the catalyst for her passion and determination to address human rights violations.
“I don’t believe that children should be treated differently depending on their economic or social status,” she said. "The importance of social justice was instilled in me by my parents as well as from Catholic teachings. But it wasn't until after a family visit to Sri Lanka in 2005 where I saw horrific poverty and heard shocking stories about the physical and sexual abuse of women, that I knew I had to find a way to stand up for them, and others around the world who have no voice.
“I didn’t want to just be standing by. I actually wanted to do something about it.”
Sheneli wanted to take action, but becoming a UN representative didn’t happen overnight. It was gradual, and started with a volunteer program. However she quickly gained the momentum and confidence she needed to pursue change.
“In high school I was a Global Volunteer Network (GVN) youth ambassador. Through this I was able to tackle negative stereotypes surrounding young people, and through that I was invited to a UN youth conference,” she said.
“That early experience taught me anything was possible. I had the privilege of going to the UN and having my voice heard. I came back from that first conference motivated and with a lot of mentors. I knew I had to do more than just attend conferences.”
Working with GVN, Sheneli encouraged other young people to volunteer, fundraise and advocate for social change.
“In 2016 I went to the international Women Deliver Conference where I met Princess Mary of Denmark. She offered so much support, so much guidance and so many reassuring words. It was great to have encouragement from an Australian woman and from a powerful figure in women’s rights. Princess Mary has done a lot of work in those areas and I keep her up to date with everything I do,” Sheneli said.
“Earlier this year I had the privilege to listen to Julie Bishop at the International Women’s Day event in New York. We had a meeting recently. It was really successful and she was very supportive and encouraging about the work I do. It convinced me that I am on the right path and doing something that is creating change.
“Meeting all these high profile individuals reminds me how lucky I am, and how developing my own profile means I have to use it for good.”
Making a difference
With some experience behind her, Sheneli has started her next adventure – pioneering the development of a human rights organisation focused on youth leadership.
“I am currently working on my own human rights organisation which will be youth led. That will be up and running by the end of the year and it is going to be about empowering young people and enforcing human rights on the ground level.
“I have started to expand my campaign to Sri Lanka. I partnered with Don Bosco Sri Lanka and travelled around rural areas to see the issues and to educate young people about their rights and the UN.
“What I realised during my time in Sri Lanka is that issues are different in different areas. I visited a girl’s school in urban Colombo and I saw that the issues there include bullying, stress and suicide. But when I visited rural areas, the main issues centre around a lack of resources like transportation, stationery, and equipment – which lead to lack of school attendance.
“Now I am working with locals to implement some programs to combat those issues and help young people.”
“But I’m not doing it alone. Honestly, the support I’ve received has been fantastic, and teamwork is absolutely key to my success. None of this would be possible without support, especially Bendigo Bank Picton, who have sponsored much of my travel and are partnering with me on future initiatives. It’s humbling to have corporations and individuals believe in me.”
More work to do
If one thing is clear, it’s that Sheneli has a hunger for human rights. As she builds confidence and experience, she continues to expand her initiatives and set her sights ever-higher.
Sheneli with Julie Bishop and at the United Nations.
“I hope to hold a conference in Sri Lanka next year that will bring the young people of Sri Lanka, Australia, and the rest of the world together with global leaders and decision-makers. I want to unite the people that I have met on my journey, to inspire them to become decision-makers and leaders in their own communities.
“I mentor a lot of young people and I always tell them that nothing is impossible. You may only be an individual, but you can still make a difference and get involved in global issues. Individuals are extremely important – you don’t need to change the whole world at once. Be proud of small changes and achievements, the positive difference you have made to a single person or a single rural community. In time, it all adds up – and together, perhaps one day we change the world.”
“The lack of young people and women in decision-making roles is still unacceptable. We have a lot more work to do. People tell me I have done so much at the age of 20, but I feel that it is not enough. I still have a long way to go, and a lot more to do.”
Sheneli Dona is studying a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Global Studies at ACU. Learn more about studying at ACU.