I WAS 27 when I started volunteering for the Young Women’s Movement last Spring, pushing the limits of what some might consider “young”, but still firmly within the under-30 category.

Although I was attuned to injustice and inequality from a young age and began devouring feminist writing at university, I had in many ways been more of an observer than a participant in activism. Of course the tendency to observe from the sidelines can be a useful trait for a writer, but I would be lying if I said that this wasn’t at least partly motivated by a desire to remain comfortably in the shadows.

Despite my strong interest in politics, I have never been involved in a political party, and while I now feel that there are positive benefits to political independence, I admit that one of my most awkward moments was the time I became a paid-up member, e-mailed an organiser before a meeting for details and ... never showed up to that or any other meeting. The reason? Fear.

I had a crippling fear of not having something worthwhile to say, of being an outsider, of simply not knowing enough. If there is one thing I have learned from listening to the experiences of other women, it is that I am far from alone in this.

When I became involved with the Young Women’s Movement, I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and take a chance at meeting other, like-minded feminists. I knew very little about the charity at the time, but I quickly felt welcomed and included in an organisation with a long history and a refreshing perspective.

At that time, 28-year-old Kara Brown was director, the youngest leader that the charity – and, I’d wager, most other charities – has ever had. From my first meeting with the team of staff and volunteers, I was inspired by an infectious sense of enthusiasm and a belief that, simply by coming together and wanting to make things better, this group of young women could actually make a difference to the often overwhelming spectre of inequality.

Everything about the Young Women’s Movement screamed “empowerment” and “self-care”. These are terms so often denigrated by people who have never felt the absence of power or who have never felt that caring for themselves, for their own mental or physical health, was a difficult choice to make. For me, perhaps the most unexpected part of my involvement with the movement was how personally uplifting and encouraging it has been.

When you consider the barriers and lack of self-confidence which gender inequality places on many young women, this kind of space is invaluable.

The results of a survey published just last week by Girlguiding Scotland found that the proportion of girls and young women who believe they can do anything a boy can do dropped from 61% among seven to 11-year-olds to 39% among 18 to 25-year-olds. Add to this the shocking under-representation of women in public life – be that on boards, local councils or in the Scottish or UK parliaments – and this becomes a matter of democratic deficiency.

The two issues are inextricably intertwined, and it is this knowledge which has driven the Young Women’s Movement’s increasingly political agenda.

It’s fair to say the Young Women’s Movement has continued to change and grow as much as I have over the past 18 months. Dr Patrycja Kupiec, a 31-year-old migrant woman – whose father was politically imprisoned at 16 for writing and distributing a newsletter opposing Poland’s Communist government – is the new director.

The charity’s Young Women Lead political participation programme officially launched at the start of 2018. In June, the organisation teamed up with the Parliament Project to co-host the “100 for the 100th” event at the Scottish Parliament, which brought together 100 women and girls aged 16 and over to celebrate Scottish Suffragettes and devise a plan to boost gender equality in politics over the next five years.

The organisation’s latest Status of Young Women in Scotland research asks respondents their experiences of activism and political participation, and how they think the situation can be improved. And this November, based on the conversations which began in the summer, an exciting partnership with the Parliament Project emerged in the form of the #ScotWomenStand project, which focuses on seven practical steps to take women through the process of political engagement – from registering to vote, to standing for election.

This firmly political focus was inspired by issues raised by young women, the organisation’s previous research and by its advisory panel, made up of women and girls aged 15-30 from across Scotland. Time and again, young women have said that they don’t feel represented and that they feel unable to access political spaces.

One young woman on the panel said she wanted to see the creation of “new spaces to talk about feminist issues, moving away from the argumentative tone towards informative and unrelentingly positive”. This is exactly what the Young Women Lead and #ScotWomenStand programmes aim to do.

The second intake of Young Women Lead participants met for the first time on November 23, bringing together a diverse group of 35 women and girls under 30 to participate in the project’s second round of mock committee meetings at the Scottish Parliament on a topic of their choosing, and to make recommendations based on the evidence. The report will be fed back to the Scottish Parliament, with a view to influencing real change.

The first intake, who had a series of meetings earlier this year, chaired by SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, selected sexual harassment in schools as its subject of enquiry, a topic which felt particularly apt amid the high profile of the issue over the past year. The new group is currently considering three topics related to gender equality, to be narrowed down in the New Year, and the participants are already buzzing with excitement over what’s to come.

Speaking to members of the first Young Women Lead, the sense of being able to make a tangible difference on a very real issue was inspiring and affirming, while the chance to meet other young women with similar concerns and interests was transformative in its own, very personal way.

One former participant, Audrey Barnes, has since gone on to become the Young Women Lead Programme Co-ordinator – ready to pass her learning on to a new group of young women. “The experience of being on the programme was a game-changer in my life. I gained new self-esteem, which has enabled me to have more confidence in going out into the world, speaking up, and paving the way for others,” Barnes explains.

Importantly, Barnes adds that the project is about so much more than the 35 women who take part. “It was about the women who couldn’t be there, whose voices are so incredibly valid, yet all too often silenced, unheard, or un-sought-out. It is by advocating for others that I have been able to combat silencing social anxiety.”

Despite its growing focus on the formal politics of elections and parliaments, the Young Women’s Movement is carefully non-partisan.

The fact that it has been able to bring together such a varied group of young women to discuss difficult issues and form positive relationships and positive solutions in the process is a mark of the real potential that exists for people to work together to create a better world.

Knowing what the Young Women’s Movement has been able to achieve so far, I have hope that by moving towards a place where women feel confident in their ability, and their right, to take up space in the spheres of politics and power, we will start to see a shift – not only in the structures of gender and other inequalities, but in the way we do and think about politics.

Who knows? In a world like that, I may even step out of the shadows myself.