Sarah Cowley (2006) Advocates for Equality

A passion to understand inequality set Grammar woman, Sarah Cowley (2006), on a path that has taken her around the world, seen her achieve a life goal of speaking at the United Nations, and recognised as ‘Young Woman of the Year’.

After graduating from BGGS, Sarah Cowley (2006), enrolled to study a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Development at The University of Queensland.

Sarah held a number of volunteering roles while completing her studies, including working for Brisbane-based not-for-profit, International Day of Peace Alliance Inc (IDPA).

However, after graduating her career plans hit a roadblock when funding cuts to the community sector meant jobs for graduates were scarce.

‘Fortunately, a position opened up at Thiess. This corporate role was extremely beneficial as it taught me the importance of people management—it doesn’t matter if you are a huge conglomerate or a small NGO—you need to manage your people properly if you’re going to be successful,’ Sarah said.

After 12 months behind a desk, Sarah was desperate for field experience in the development sector, and in early 2014 she took up a three-month placement at Life and Hope Association in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At the same time, she changed roles from IDPA to Armed with the Arts Inca larger and more established not-for-profit with an almost identical charter to IDPA.

‘I had an extremely supportive boss at Thiess who encouraged me to go, and soon my three months turned into a one-year stint, including travel and work in Vietnam, Nepal and India.’

During her five years as a board member and project manager at Armed with the Arts Inc, Sarah facilitated the Peace Crane Project in classrooms around the world.

‘Our team was also selected to attend the 2017 United Nations’ International Day of Peace Event in New York, an event attended by UN Secretary General, Mr António Guterres, and Dr Jane Goodall.

‘I was fortunate to be a guest speaker to talk about the Peace Crane Project and Armed with the Arts’ role in contributing to global peace in front of hundreds of participants—a life goal ticked!’ Sarah said.

Despite her success, Sarah realised that while she had learned a lot and understood community development at depth, she lacked a deep understanding of the legal frameworks that prevented action against human rights violations.

This came about as she had worked with women and girls who had suffered at the hands of corrupt police and officials, in countries with little or no support for the vulnerable.

‘One harrowing story I’ll never forget is of a woman who knew her sister was murdered by her husband, but the police wrote it as suicide in the official report and no charges were ever laid.

‘Sadly, this is not that uncommon, but my first-time hearing this was very unsettling. It also ignited a need for me to know more about how this could be possible. That’s when I enrolled in a Masters of International Law and Human Rights at the United Nations University for Peace.’

In 2018, Sarah’s work in global peace building was recognised by Soroptimist International, with an award for Young Woman of the Year. This year also marked her return to the corporate world and Sarah found herself back in Cambodia, this time working as the Group Corporate Communications Manager for ISI GROUP.

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus outbreak grew into a pandemic, she found herself at the forefront of the company’s COVID-19 Emergency Response, and with more than 2000 staff across eight businesses in the group, her role was critical.

‘I was focussed on our communications strategy, managing a team to execute this, and making sure all of our people were informed, aware and supported during this time.

‘Thankfully, our response was extremely successful, with no cases of COVID-19 at work and an overall sense of security within our large team.’

Despite containing the health crisis at work, on a personal level a different story was unfolding for Sarah, her partner, MG, and their 14-month-old daughter, Zara.

‘My fiancé, who is from Nigeria, was visiting family there when the authorities gave 48-hours’ notice that the borders were closing due to the worsening situation. MG was unable to leave in time and suddenly we found ourselves separated.’

At the time they had no idea how long this would last, and soon days turned into weeks, and then months.

Sarah believes her life as a global citizen steeled her, MG and Zara for their time apart, but she is very thankful to the local community for their support for her and her daughter.

‘Thankful, yes, but not surprised. Cambodia is extremely family focussed; everyone is so understanding of having children around.

‘Zara is really young, so I don’t think she will remember these experiences, however I do think developmentally she has benefitted from our lifestyle.

‘The environment is really positive and free, so I think having that experience has helped form her into the little girl she is becoming.’

Now that her family is reunited, and the world is learning to live with COVID-19, Sarah has this advice for those struggling with their own challenges: ‘I think overall, you make the most of whatever circumstance you are in. If you chose to see the bad sides (which is very easy), then that’s what you’ll see. But if you adjust your lens and focus on the benefits, then that is what you experience instead.’