A Swedish Volunteer in Uzbekistan
When dreams become reality
May 31, 2022
Maja Löfström is from Varberg, a small town of 35,000 inhabitants on the west coast of Sweden. Her father coaches boxing, and her mother is a glassblower with a studio by the harbour. As a young girl, Maja dreamed of growing up to pursue a career where she could make a difference in the world. She first thought of being a psychologist to help people, then changed her mind and studied to become a social worker. She chose this path because it would give her broader job opportunities in different fields.
Majas' main inspiration and support in the search for her passion has been her father Juha; he has always believed in her and treated her equally to her brother. Considering Juhas’ boxing background, he has taught Maja how to fight for herself and always encouraged to pursue her dreams. He has never limited her in any way. She could count on his support no matter what she wanted to do, whether it was studying for a master's degree, travelling around the world, or moving to Uzbekistan to volunteer for UNDP.
In addition, Juha is a feminist and women’s rights activist. He votes for a feminist party in Sweden and never stops promoting gender equality on International Women’s Day (8th of March). Maja believes that more women need the immediate support and zero tolerance against discrimination and sexual harassment coming from men around them. “Having a male role model like my dad has made me very motivated and strong.”
Interestingly enough, it was Maja’s father who took the most parental leaves because her mother was working. “I think that is why I am so passionate about gender equality; I want all women and girls to have the same opportunities as me and to feel the support from their families and not be limited like so many of the women I met while working in the shelters for survivors of violence.”
After Maja graduated, she started working at a shelter with focus on survivors of honorary violence. It is a form of violence where women’s entire family or sometimes the family of their husbands (or both) are defining what she is allowed or not allowed to do.
“During this time, I heard so many heart-breaking stories from women, I decided to dedicate my life to fighting for gender equality and women’s rights.” Maja recalls a striking story that one of the residents shared with her: “Jana faced terrible violence that came from both her own family and the “in-law’s. She wasn’t allowed to pursue any of her dreams, but was rather forced to do things she did not care for”. Such stories inevitably had a negative effect on Majas’ mental health; however, it certainly made her realize that from now on she wants to dedicate her life to helping women like Jana.
Maja then started to look for other job opportunities where she could make a difference working on gender equality on a higher level. She always knew that at some point she wanted to gain international experience so that she could gain a deeper understanding of gender equality and violence against women world-wide. She applied through the United Nations Volunteer Programme (UNV) and got an offer at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Uzbekistan. She started her career journey as a gender specialist. In this role she provides much-needed support in the areas of gender-based violence, gender equality and gender mainstreaming. She says her experience working with shelters and with survivors of violence, combined with her passion for women’s empowerment, formed the perfect match. UNDP Uzbekistan appreciated Maja's devotion to her work so much that they offered to extend her assignment and promote her to senior specialist.
Maja said one of her favourite experiences as part of UNDP Uzbekistan to date was organizing a training on gender-based violence for the workers of shelters and Government agencies in Uzbekistan focusing on learnings from Swedish experts. It was an important training opportunity as there were a few new shelters established in Uzbekistan and the responsible officials could take inspiration from the Swedish model, which does not only work to keep women safe from immediate violence but also focuses on rehabilitation and treatment of the perpetrators.
She said her time working in Uzbekistan has been the most valuable experience thus far in her life, both professionally and personally. She grew professionally and has learned so much about the UN system and how to work more strategically with gender equality.
The things Maja misses the most about Uzbekistan are: the food, especially plov, the amazing people and travelling around Uzbekistan to the magical cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. “And personally,” she said, “I have been able to experience the greatness of Uzbekistan as a country as well as to know the amazing people of this country. I will be forever grateful for my experience working in Uzbekistan. And after my current mission is done, I want to continue working with the UN to further contribute to advancing gender equality across the world”.
“I will be forever grateful for my experience working in Uzbekistan. And after my current mission is done, I want to continue working with the UN to further contribute to advancing gender equality across the world”.Maja Löfström