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Teen turns years of being bullied into advocacy for multicultural youths and gender equality

Harpreet Dhillon
Harpreet Dhillon will be the first female in her family to finish high school.(ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)

"I'm a freedom fighter, I guess."

It's a phrase well beyond her years, but one that fits the life Harpreet Dhillon has struggled with.

The 17-year-old's impressive portfolio is that of a socially conscious teenager.

She's an advocate for gender equality and multicultural youths, was an ambassador for Girl Guides, a representative for the NSW Council of Social Service, and on Tuesday was the keynote speaker at a youth conference for refugees and migrants held by Settlement Services International (SSI).

Last month she was the youngest Australian civil society delegate to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Not to mention, she's in her HSC year and she is set to become the first girl in her family to finish high school.

Harpreet Dhillon in NYC at a rally
Harpreet at a peace rally in New York in March.(Supplied: Harpreet Dhillon)

"For me, my journey of advocating began after fully overcoming the difficulties I faced growing up," Harpreet said.

"Instead of staying in my bedroom and crying about it, I needed to get up and protect anyone who may experience similar experiences.

Identity struggles

Harpreet was born in Australia and grew up alongside two brothers in Sydney's north-west suburb of Epping.

Her parents migrated from India 28 years ago; theirs was a culture where women were expected to leave school in year 10 or earlier, marry above their status in an arranged union, and bear children.

It's a tradition Harpreet said "doesn't sit well with her" at all.

Harpreet Dhillon as a little girl with her mum and two older brothers
Harpreet Dhillon has two older brothers and lives with her parents in Epping.(Supplied: Harpreet Dhillon)

Her primary school years were tough.

"There was no-one who had the same skin colour as I did. I had problems with my English, so for a few years I just dealt with bullying," she said.

"I had low self-esteem, no confidence in myself.

"I struggled a lot with my identity because at home it was very culturally different to the world outside."

Harpreet suffered from anxiety and frequent panic attacks and developed anorexia during early high school.

She said she struggled with "being different".

A life-changing trip to India

A trip to India when she was 12 sparked a turning point in Harpreet's outlook on life.

"I thought India would be like a Bollywood movie ... but when I was in the taxi I started crying," she recalled.

"I saw all the poverty, all the garbage, all the homelessness; I hadn't really seen much homelessness in Australia, but there I saw men on the street, disabled people. It was an eye-opener."

With help from her friends, counsellors, family, and a particular drama teacher at school, Harpreet built up confidence and learnt to accept her differences.

Group of young people attend the SSI youth conference
The SSI conference to teach new migrants and refugees about education and employment.(Supplied: Settlement Services International)

Rather than be ashamed of who she was, the struggles became a strength to encourage others.

She now regularly mentors recently arrived refugees and migrants through SSI.

"I want to show the families ... that your voice does matter and that you can do so many things.

"Just because you're from a cultural linguistic diverse background doesn't mean you're any different from someone who comes from an Australian or an English or developed background.

"And why I talk about gender equality; I don't want to disempower men, I just want women to feel they are unique, can break boundaries and not feel like they are second to men."

Giving millennials a voice

Harpreet said she hoped to study politics or international relations once she finished school and eventually work at the UN.

Until then, she plans to continue volunteering in the community and agitating government leaders to better engage young people in discussions about policy decisions.

She said she believed the Federal Government should reinstate the cabinet position of Minister for Youth Affairs and have more youth representatives in Parliament.

"We've had a journey that no-one else has faced.

"We're the decision makers of the future so we should start learning how to make those decisions now, not just when we're older."