Marleigh Austin

Marleigh Austin – I see the world as a smaller place

(Swaziland, 2015-Present)

Marleigh never dreamed that her convictions about gender equality and social justice would present her with the opportunity to stand alongside FLAS colleagues in Swazi Parliament advocating for legislation to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. “As an advocacy officer with FLAS, I carried out an analysis on sexual offences and domestic violence, and it was very exciting when we presented it to Parliament”, said Marleigh who was part of the FLAS delegation.

Marleigh’s study supported FLAS advocacy’s long-standing efforts for a fairer and up-to-date gender-based violence legislation in the country. Inspired by parents who were CUSO volunteers in the 1970s, she has always been passionate about social justice and equality issues that have shaped her career as an advocate of women’s and youth’s rights. “I grew up with stories about international volunteering that triggered my interest in the work that Crossroads does,” she said.

Marleigh’s background in addressing health inequalities and public policy and work experience with First Nations youth reservations proved very useful in her work with young men and women in Swaziland. “It’s not easy to be a young person in Swaziland where 27% of the population is affected by HIV/AIDS and there is a high unemployment rate,” she said. With FLAS, she developed a sexual education and reproductive health curriculum for the youth program, which is having a positive impact within the community. “The youth we trained are now running the information sessions by themselves. They follow the curriculum, and they know which topic to cover in their weekly sessions and the goals they must meet (…). They have become reference points and trustworthy people within their communities.”

New challenges

Volunteering in Swaziland has exposed Marleigh to the challenges of international work. “In Swaziland, the American government is an important donor. The Gag Order stipulates that any organization that advocates for abortion as a form of family planning cannot receive American funding. That has had a huge impact on our work and has changed our priorities at FLAS. Since the order was introduced, I’ve done lot of resource mobilization to get more funds to be able to continue our programs.” She continued saying,

“As a volunteer, I’ve gained a strong understanding of the international development landscape and how decisions made miles away impact the lives of people in recipient countries (…). Today, I see the world as a smaller place.”

“To be an international volunteer, you have to be very independent and curious about how different societies and cultures work. The most successful volunteers I met are those willing to integrate themselves and get involved in everything. If you are keen on making an impact at the international level, Crossroads is the right place for you”, Marleigh concluded.