This is what 30 looks like: women across the world share their experiences

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Alessia Armenise
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To mark International Women’s Day, Stylist spoke to 30 women across the globe to get an honest and eclectic view of life at 30

Whether it’s yet to come or you’ve been there, done that, turning 30 is quite a milestone. And for many of us it’s become linked with expectations. Thought you’d be earning more? Assumed you’d be married? Figured you’d have it all worked out? Across the world, women at 30 inevitably take stock of where, what and who they are…

So what does life look like for a woman aged 30 in 2016? Does it feel full? Does it seem fair? More to the point, do we feel truly equal to our male counterparts, in the workplace and at home?

This week marks International Women’s Day (8 March), and parity – or achieving gender equality in status or pay – is this year’s theme. Globally, there’s no doubting that everyone, both men and women, would be better off if this were achieved – last year’s McKinsey Global Institute report found that advancing women’s equality and erasing the gender gap could add $12trillion to global growth. Yet all over the world, it’s an issue still resoundingly overlooked – and the situation is getting worse. In 2014, the World Economic Forum estimated that it would be another 81 years before we could hope to achieve global gender parity, but last year that leapt up to 117 years. A terrifying prospect.

So what can we do about it? This week, IWD is encouraging women to #PledgeForParity; to make our voices heard – and, more pertinently, listen to and amplify the voices of all women. And at Stylist we intend to do our bit.

Over the past six weeks, we’ve spoken to hundreds of women all over the world, finally selecting 30 women, all aged 30 – the average age of you, the Stylist reader – to reveal what their lives really look like today. Each woman received the same questions and each responded in her own way. The results – often inspiring, sometimes emotional, and always unwaveringly individual – were overwhelming.

So what does 30 look like? Well, something like this…

Nashuru Tagei is a farmer in Tanzania. Read her story here.

Roshana Mehdian is a junior doctor in London. Read her story here.

Zinabua Birhanu is a coffee farmer and community leader in Ethiopia. Read her story here.

Huda Albayoumi works for an non-governmental organisation in the Gaza Strip. Read her story here.

TV and radio presenter Gemma Cairney tells us about her life in Britain. Read her story here.

Catherine Wong

My greatest challenge in life is finding a boyfriend or a husband. I am now 30 and yet I’m still single… so is this really where I saw myself at this age? Nope.

Happiness, for me, isn’t just about me meeting the love of my life and having a baby, but my sister meeting someone and settling down with a family, too. My ambition is to be in a position whereby I can take care of both my sister and my parents – I can’t help but worry about their health, as well as my own.

I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved in my career so far. I earn just under £900 a month and from that I pay £218 in rent for my apartment; within 10 years I hope to be an international golf referee and a tournament director.

I’ve always been inspired by the talent and life of Coco Chanel. I think that, for women, your career and parents are what matter most of all – and I’m very proud to say I have the greatest mum and dad.

Tamara Freitas Siqueira

My life is very different from the one I imagined. Not better or worse, I just never thought I’d live in a tiny village at the edge of a rainforest. I’m very happy to be where I am today. Quality of life is something I’ve really made a priority; I had to take risks in my career to get out of the city (I was born in Rio) and move to a remote corner of Bahia, but I trusted my intuition. I now live in a beautiful, magical environment in a cosy house provided by my employer, costing R$500 (£90) a month – due to the hotel’s profit-sharing model, my income varies a lot.

Knowing I’ve got to this point in my life through my own choices gives me huge satisfaction and confidence – I earned, it didn’t just happen by accident.

In Brazil, women still don’t enjoy equality, which for me means choosing how we want to live or what our values are – the same freedom men enjoy. Women are much more likely than men to live in poverty, be sexually assaulted and experience domestic violence.

Sandra De La Cruz

Where did you see yourself at 30? I was 11 when democracy was restored to our country, which was previously a dictatorship. I remember thinking, ‘When I’m older, I want to fight for human rights.’ And here I am; the woman I hoped I’d be as a girl. That makes me very happy. As does the fact I earn enough (£400 a month) to rent my own room. It costs £130 a month, but I’m proud to have left home and have my own space.
Biggest fear? Inequality. The drop-out rate of girls from school is much higher than boys, because we’re expected to work in the home, caring for siblings, washing, cooking, cleaning. Women aren’t safe. I can’t walk the streets for fear of being killed or raped; this is the product of patriarchy in my country.
Greatest challenges? In Peru, 70% of working women earn 40% less than men, but work more than them. Women shouldn’t have to work so hard for less. No-one should deprive women of their dreams.

Tomkham Borihane

Is this where you saw yourself at 30? Yes. I have a good family, a good husband and three lovely sons. I’m proud of my work and that my husband and I are supportive of each other, in terms of child-rearing, housework and managing our time. I’ve had very little social life since I had my first son, but I don’t mind; I never tire of being a mother, wife and working woman. I have a little house and a small car for taking my kids to school; my life path has been clear since I married at 24.
Biggest fear? I worry about our society and social networking. Everything seems to go so quickly and grow too fast – I’m not sure I can keep up in order to give the right information to my children.
Greatest challenges? Money is a big issue, especially when it’s the end of the month. I earn 5 million Kip (£441) a month and this covers my outgoings, including the children’s education, but I’ve no savings – if anyone in the family gets sick it’s a real concern.

Kim Lan Grout

I’ve always rooted for the underdog, but after my above-knee amputation at 18, I wanted to make other people’s lives, with or without disabilities, easier. My own disability has been liberating. When my daughters were born the drive to fight for a better future became indefatigable.

The US media loves to paint the picture of disabled people as heroic athletes overcoming gargantuan feats inspired by our disabilities. The majority of us fall between the two extremes; capable and educated, worthy of time and patience.

My country is not that supportive of women so if I can help my daughters grow to be strong and powerful, yet empathetic, I’ll feel I’ve conquered the world. My 101-year-old grandmother, a holocaust survivor, is an inspiration to us all. She survived the labour-camps and made her way to the US. Who wouldn’t be honoured to have her blood run in their veins?

Besarta Zhugolli

I used to work in a factory sewing jeans, but had to quit as the monthly salary (£115) barely covered my travel expenses.

I genuinely didn’t see myself like this at 30, I thought I’d be employed and have children already. I’m just an ordinary person who wants to work and have her own money – it’s so important for women that they are educated and financially independent – but while I’m doing skills training and continuing my sewing and handicrafts, I’m not earning a regular income.

It’s one of my greatest regrets that my family couldn’t afford to send me to secondary school and now I wish for that opportunity again; my greatest hope is to finish my education and become a teacher.

I’m very happy with the life I share with my husband, the only thing that would make it better still would be for us to have a child. For me, happiness can only be achieved when you have a family – not having children is my biggest fear. If I do have them I will become the happiest person in the world.

Elena Petrova

At 30, I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved, from expanding my oil business to becoming a mother. I’ve travelled to lots of different countries – one of my hobbies is trying recipes with the different spices I bring home after each journey. I’m also obsessed with fashion, and love shopping; I firmly believe women should be strong and independent, but it’s important to remember our feminine side as well.

I’ve always been ambitious and I make a good living. I would describe myself as well off – I earn €2,500 (£2,000) a month, with €350 (£275) spent on living expenses. But it can be hard to strike a balance between work and family. Since I became a mother, my goals have changed – now all my ambitions revolve around my daughter. She’s the thing I’m most proud of; for me happiness is her smile. I want her to grow up not afraid of life, knowing that she can achieve anything if she believes in herself, just as my incredible mother instilled in me. I hope that in 10 years’ time, I’m as happy as I am now.

Sabita Maharjan

Where did you see yourself at 30? Married with two children. At 21, I married and had a daughter named Sakina. Four and a half years later, my husband was killed in a motorbike accident. After he died, I started a support group for women in my community and, with help from my mother-in-law, went to university to study rural development. Now, I strive to fulfil my husband’s responsibilities.
Biggest fear: That Sakina won’t inherit her parental property as, legally, women can only inherit property if they’re married. My parents raised me to believe men and women can be equal. Women need to fight for their rights.
Greatest challenge: Setting up a co-operative of local women. I wanted to create opportunities for single women like me to be economically empowered, but winning their trust was difficult. My next challenge is to change the custom of women wearing a white dress for a year after her husband dies. Widows face enough without this.

Shih-Han Kao

I am a good employee, but I’m a bad girlfriend, daughter and friend. I don’t want to be, but balancing a personal life and a job can be hard. I often work overtime and come home late. During the weekends I check my emails, which means I spend most of my time working rather than with my family and friends. Do I feel miserable? Yes, but I’m trying to change and be more relaxed about work.

Now that I’m 30, I feel like I understand the importance of perspective. For example, I’ve learned that happiness is cherishing what you have and taking pleasure in the small things. In Taiwan, we call this phenomenon ‘the tiny happiness’. In the past, I used to think that the more I had the happier I’d be, but once I earned more – I’m paid $1,300 (£935) a month and don’t pay any rent – I realised I’d never felt more empty. It took me a long time to realise that I wasn’t appreciating what I already had around me. Now I appreciate everything, even if it’s something as simple as going for brunch at the weekend with my boyfriend. He is my most prized possession.

Most importantly though, being happier has made me feel more satisfied with who I am. I feel I’m finally starting to mature because I know the importance of being positive. Yes, the darkness in life is still there, but I’ve learned how to ignore it and work through those negative emotions. At 30, my life is easier and full of genuine happiness.

Rabia Barkatulla

Where did you see yourself at 30? When I was younger, 30 seemed very grown up. I expected to be settled into a stable life – I didn’t forsee the pressures of the financial downturn or that I’d experience grief on an overwhelming scale. At 29, I was pregnant with my first child, but after I gave birth to a stillborn daughter my 30th birthday was entirely bereft of joy. When my daughter died, I learned a lot about myself. I used to say that a good education teaches you more about yourself than any other subject, but now I know that my daughter was my education. I am proud to have given birth, but now my greatest ambition is to adopt.
Biggest fear? War and imprisonment. I lived under sanctions in Damascus during the Arab Spring and worked as a copywriter in Cairo during the elections the following year.
Greatest challenge? To be my own best friend – if you can be that, you don’t need anyone else to survive. As women, we need to believe that we are equal to men in terms of intellectual elegance and can achieve and contribute phenomenal insight.

Linn Øhman

When I was younger, 30 seemed so old. I thought I would have settled down by now. Instead, I’ve experienced more than I could have dreamed of, from learning to kickbox in Indonesia to studying in Edinburgh and Hong Kong. I guess I fit into the so-called ‘millennial generation’ – I’m adventurous and love to meet new people.

I’m a high earner compared to my peers, but in Norway there is a smaller gap between salaries of recent graduates and senior staff, leaving less disparity between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. For me though, happiness has nothing to do with money. It’s about a feeling of fulfilment that comes from pushing my limits and doing stuff that petrifies me, like public-speaking.

It hasn’t always been this way. At school I was bullied by other girls. I’m quite sensitive so I tend to over-analyse, putting too much emphasis on other’s opinions. But I’ve also learned not to worry so much. Women are great at focusing on the worst-case scenario and making excuses for not doing something. So I’ve learned to just do it and improvise as you go along.

Irene Nkosi

How to describe myself? I’m loving and patient. A go-getter, I never give up on anything. I do my best to turn negatives into opportunities. I’m able to put myself in another person’s shoes and imagine how they are feeling. I believe that when you’re at the lowest point in your life it is not a hand-out you need but a hand up. I am a mother, a wife and a graduate. And lastly, I am a woman living with HIV.

I am proud of my achievements. I hold my job as a mentor to mothers in the highest regard. Being able to help people when they are struggling may not be significant, but I believe I am saving lives.

My most prized possessions are my children. I know they would always be proud of me, even if I do not achieve all my goals of furthering my education or running my own company as a beautician.

I’m the sole breadwinner in the house, earning R6,200 (£290) a month and after all the bills – R2,300 (£110) for groceries, R500 (£23) for electricity and water etc, – there’s not much left over, but I would lay down my life for my children. They are the reason the sun rises in the morning.

My biggest fear is that I die while my children are still young – 1.6million people live with HIV in South Africa and mortality rates for young women are more than double the rates for men. I know what it feels like growing up without a mother. It can be hard and I don’t want that for them. But I stay positive. I may not be rich, but I provide for my family. Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect, it means you look beyond imperfections and enjoy life. That’s what I do.

Farhat Fatima

I am most proud of being a professional, single mother, but it hasn’t been easy. Growing up, my parents provided me with a good education, but they had definite ideas about what girls should and shouldn’t do especially when it came to marriage. After university, I was told I had to marry a man of my family’s choice – that’s when my struggles started. The marriage was not a happy one and we divorced shortly after my daughter’s birth. The only positive to come from it was that I then studied for a master’s in social sciences – and shortly afterwards got my job at PILER. Outdated cultures and traditions mean that as a divorced woman, I face many social stigmas and I’m judged on my failed marriage; it’s why I’d love to develop a support network for single mums.

To me, men and women are like two different shades of the same flower, which have different fragrances, but equal qualities – and should therefore have equal status.

I try to live by the advice I would offer to all women: believe in yourself, stay positive and, where you can, stand up to injustice.

Zuzana Schwagerová

Is this where you saw yourself at 30? No. I never saw myself having children. I wanted to be successful in my career and rich enough to travel the world! But, now, my priorities have changed. I try to survive on child benefits – around 5,000 CZK (£145) a week – and not work too much so I can spend time with my daughter. When I work, I make around 10,000 CZK (£290) a week.
Biggest fear: Being alone.
Greatest challenge: Finishing my film and theatre studies without neglecting my child. Happiness to me now is looking around and realising that my house is a mess, I haven’t had time to read a novel in two years, I still can’t afford the jacket I want – but I’m exactly where I want to be with the people I love.

Kelly King

I travelled and partied in my 20s but approaching my 30th birthday – I felt like I’d got my career on track too. I’d always wanted children and it never seemed like a pressing issue when I was dating men. But when I fell in love with another woman, Zeya, I questioned if it would even be possible.

Happily, I’m now 16 weeks pregnant after IVF using sperm from an anonymous donor. It has been a long process and not something I ever expected to be doing but I am so happy. It was tough. But it’s brought us even closer. Marriage is not a priority for us. We’re saving that money as we want more children and IVF is expensive. Luckily, we both own our houses, so we rent one out for some extra income.

Eloïse Laubez

When people ask me if I’m where I thought I’d be at 30, I just laugh. It feels like I’m a thousand miles away from the image I had in my head. I thought things would go a lot faster – that I would already be at the head of a big company, that I’d be super successful. It makes me smile to think of my younger self with all my crazy expectations and ambitions.

Instead I’ve spent the past few years learning to be patient. I’ve learned how to build my life in a slow but responsible way. Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” and so I try to live by this adage. I’m a fervent environmentalist. I only ever use my bike to get around Paris and I spend as many weekends as I can close to nature, surfing on the west coast or snowboarding in the Alps, where I’m from. Whenever we go away I drive my friends crazy trying to teach them how to be more eco-friendly, but despite their protests it’s working. We are going to save this planet, I tell you!

I still like to have fun. I like going out and partying until dawn. Lemon pie is my guilty pleasure. My two most prized possessions are rare pieces by Chloé: a pair of black suede shoes embellished with crystals and a wedding dress from the s/s 2009 runway show.

I love living and working in my lovely 40sqm city apartment, but I’d like to have a better work-life balance. Turning my small business into a successful start-up has been so rewarding, but it’s a full-time job with no-one to depend on but myself. Eventually, I’d love to raise a family if I manage to find Mr Right, but you never know how things will end.

Trang Trinh

There are many social pressures put on women in Vietnam. You are expected to work full time while also being responsible for housework. You must have kids – especially a son to carry the family name. My greatest challenge is finding a way to honour tradition but not crumble under the pressure – I want to have children, but I also want to achieve my dreams.

My husband and I founded the Miracle Choir & Orchestra, a not-for-profit programme, which offers free instruments and music classes to underprivileged children, especially orphans (many of whom are girls) in Vietnam. I am proud of our organisation (I was listed in Forbes Vietnam list of 30 under 30 in 2015) and proud to say that I have spent my 20s living passionately. I plan to devote the next 10 years to helping children who have faced hardships recover through music. And I want to treasure each moment of living –without wasting time worrying about what others think of me.

Judy Mcomollo

I spend my days helping disabled people with their rights and their confidence. Tribalism in Kenya interferes with every part of my work life – it means it can be difficult to get correct information across, and often tribes don’t trust each other. Because of the work I do, it’s not often I think about my own path but, honestly, I am proud of the woman I am right now.

My father passed away when I was young and my mother brought me and my three siblings up single-handedly. No matter how difficult it was, or how hard she had to work, we always had food on the table and a shelter over our heads. She sacrificed a lot and thanks to the education I got, I am now able to do a degree. My goal is to finish the degree programme; it will help me in a job that I love.

I’m pretty shy by nature so I’ve had to really try over the years to believe in myself and use my voice. I never would have thought that by finding my own potential, I would be able to inspire others to find theirs.

Elena Apaza Huacoto

Where did you see yourself at 30? I had no idea that one day I would be a leader in my community. I feel lucky to have been trained by a local charity (supported by Womankind) to teach other women to understand their rights and help women who are survivors of violence to get access to support.
Biggest fear? That women will always [be forced to] remain submissive to their husbands. I still have to ask my husband’s permission to do anything. I work on my family farm and we don’t make enough to sell, just to live on, so I cannot be away too often. Women in my community are slowly challenging the discrimination they face because they are getting educated about their rights. It gives me a lot of hope.
Greatest challenge? Gender inequality in my community. But knowing about women’s rights makes me feel as if I have a voice. If I had one message for all women it would be to rise up and eradicate violence; everyone has the right to a life free from violence.

Annie Gustavsson

When I was younger, I listened too much to other people, and so wasted time doing things I wasn’t interested in. Now I know I was missing out on other opportunities that could have been, if not life-changing, at least a lot more fun!

Currently, my partner is studying medicine 120km away from where we live, which means I spend most of the week by myself with the children. I’m on maternity leave and it’s my biggest challenge to ensure the days I spend alone with them are joyful and memorable. My mother is my biggest inspiration in this regard. She raised me and my sisters by herself, always working hard, but struggling financially. Somehow, she ensured that the absence of our father was never a big deal – she was a mother and father in one.

For me, happiness is being in a relationship that provides love, laughter and safety. Sweden is regularly ranked one of the happiest countries to live and I consider myself lucky to live here. It’s where I can be who I want to be.

Paola Cuadros-Sierra

Where did you see yourself at 30? Exactly as I am. I still have things I want to achieve, like doing a PhD and having children, but I’m completely happy as I am now.
Biggest fear? Not being able to do something for myself. I’m very independent; I take after my grandma. Despite all the trouble she has lived through in Colombia, she is still so strong, independent and full of life. She is my greatest inspiration.
Greatest challenge? Living alone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy in my 37 sq m flat with my yellow orchid for company, but the challenge isn’t just moving into a flat on your own. The challenge is knowing yourself, listening to your body and learning how to calm the wolf inside when you’re alone. For me, happiness is the ability to accept everything that happens in life with love. I know this isn’t easy. My advice to all women is to listen to your heart. Don’t worry about being selfish – sometimes you have to do what is best for you.

Tengku Azura Safiyuddeen

One of the main problems women face in Malaysia today is moral policing, with boundaries between state and individual too often blurred. For example, the way you dress and conduct your life is open to public scrutiny, and state authorities believe it’s within their power to punish behaviour they deem contrary to public morality. Despite this, Malaysian women remain resolute – we never let a challenge get in the way of our success.

On a socio-economic level, women are still viewed as the weaker sex. History has not been kind to us. We could definitely do with more women in leadership roles; perhaps then there’d be less bloodshed in the world.

I honestly thought that at 30 I’d still be stuck in a desk job. I never dreamed I’d throw caution to the wind and start my own business – and I’m proud that I took that leap of faith, even if it meant leaving corporate safety behind. Life never follows the straight and narrow; expect the unexpected… and embrace it.

Florence Namaru

Where did you see yourself at 30? Married with kids. I have partly achieved this with my daughter, but she lives with my parents when I’m working in the field. I’m hopeful for greater things to come but for now I’m happy to have my freedom. Single mothers need to be courageous. Have a plan; be creative; feel confident you can rely on yourself.
Biggest fear? My daughter missing out on a father’s love and care.
Greatest challenge? Living in a society where men are regarded more highly than women. If a woman is educated, has a good job and is able to provide, she is seen as ‘too independent’. Once they marry, many women are forced to give up work – but just as many would rather be single mothers than give up their independence. Women have shown we are capable of achieving what men can – we are builders, drivers, even presidents – so I hope, one day, we will have true equality.

Shatyaki Singh Bohra

There have always been challenges for Indian women in society, but things are changing: girls’ schooling is being prioritised and educated families are supporting equality for the female child. For example, I have an MBA. Four years ago, my parents were seeking a suitable marriage for me and found someone who was educated and from a respectable family. But then his father demanded a dowry of €80,000 (£63,350). We’re an affluent family, so could easily meet his demands, but I was determined not to indulge his greed – and my parents supported my decision. A year later, my parents met another family who placed more importance on matching personalities than a dowry. Now, I take great pride in telling people that my in-laws didn’t demand a penny.

As a working woman in India, it can be hard balancing personal responsibilities with professional aspirations as women are usually responsible for managing the household – but, luckily, we women are also superior to men in our ability to juggle.

Dr Clare Eluka

Where did you see yourself at 30? I saw myself running a business, being a wife and making a difference, so I’m where I expected to be. Seeing clients who have hidden their arms and legs because of eczema now feeling liberated is so rewarding.
Biggest fear: Losing my creativity. I grew up poor, so creating Barbie houses out of cereal boxes was my outlet. I love nothing more than being inspired by a brilliant novel or painting, which I love to do in my spare time. But I’m never satisfied with my circumstances. I often burn myself out at work because I’m worried about losing my creative juices. I have to remind myself it’s not going to disappear.
Greatest challenge: Not having role models. In the UK we don’t have enough women to look up to in any profession. I think the next frontier is to see women helping each other succeed. Back in 2011 when I started my beauty company, people told me I was crazy, but I stuck to the vision in my head. If we all stopped knocking each other down, I truly believe women could run the world.

Natalie Blake

I see myself as lucky growing up in New Zealand. I always thought that by the time I was 30 I’d be married with at least one child, but now I’m here I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve plenty of time ahead of me and I’ve enjoyed every minute of my 20s, meeting lots of great people along the way.

I haven’t experienced many challenges in my life, but I’m most proud of my degree in pharmacy. Living in NZ is reasonably priced – I earn $85,000 (£40,000) a year, but pay $708 (£337) a month rent. Getting to work is easy and you can holiday in the mountains, by a river, lake or sea without too much travel.

Spending time with people I love, keeping a good work/play balance, experiencing new things – these are what define happiness for me. The challenges I face lie within my own personal limits. My advice for other women? Say yes to every opportunity as it’s good to be thrown in at the deep end… you can learn a lot on your way back up.

Photography: Deepika Joshi/Oxfam,,,,,

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Alessia Armenise

Alessia Armenise is picture editor of Stylist and In her free time you'll find her tasting vegan street food around east London and sharing her (many) opinions on London Fields Radio. Instagram