During a discussion on meaningful child and youth participation in society, an audience member asked this simple question: “Why is the youth voice important?” One panellist jumped at this opportunity with statistics, offering numbers that paint a youthful future, which “deserves to be heard.” Another delivered an impassioned point about the potential of young people and how this needs to be harnessed by listening to their voices.
While all the responses were valid, there was one which stayed with me. One of the youngest panellists, a 17-year-old activist from Ghana, simply responded, “because we are human too, and that’s enough reason to listen to us.”
Gender based violence is my biggest frustration
Participation is a fundamental human right. It’s a guiding principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For meaningful and effective participation, young people need the proper tools and support to speak and advocate for themselves. The freshly-launched UNICEF Youth Advocacy Guide aims to be one such tool.
The Guide is inspired by the experiences of young Africans, who have co-created this tool with UNICEF. Through a series of workshops in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and Côte d’Ivoire, young activists were able to share their experiences and turn these into teachable moments. Wisdom from young people underwrites the Guide: “Gender based violence is my biggest frustration,” says Emily Rose. “There are many women who do not work and are educated for the purpose of being wives and are only “objects” that serve to be at home. But these women have talents that can change a lot in the world.”
Young people from across sub-Saharan Africa also submitted their stories online, and these were used in creating the Guide. The stories highlight issues such as health care, access to information, xenophobia and climate change.
Story contributor, Ditebogo, shares how her personal experience with the effects of climate change led her to represent her country as the official youth delegate of South Africa at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP22). All at the young age of 19! “I noticed how rivers and dams that once were filled with water, now were bone-dry. It was extremely hot, worse than before, and when it rained, heavy floods would destroy the houses of some of my family members. I saw the effects of climate change first hand. It was, and continues to be, personal to me. I had to take action,” she says.
At the workshops, participants shared stories that prompted frustration, laughter, and in many cases, tears. Dorcus, from Uganda, described how a girl’s value is directly linked to how many cows her marriage can secure for her family. These beliefs, paired with poverty, often mean girls’ education, wellbeing and security are not prioritised. She says while policies do exist to protect and empower the girl child, community leaders and the youth are often not aware of these. “Government needs to put in more effort to make sure these policies reach even the deepest village,” she says.
And yet in that same community, Dorcus is now at the forefront of reminding all that children and women need to be protected from violence and exploitation, as well as empowered to participate fully in their communities.
The launch of the Youth Advocacy Guide comes at a special time for Africa and the world
The African continent is changing. On current trends, in the next 35 years, Africa will be home to 1 billion children, and the overall population will double in size, reaching 2.5 billion. These shifts affect every aspect of our lives and have the potential to be blessings or burdens. They could bring economic growth, development and social progress, or they could lead to uncertainty, moral decay and economic decline.
Globally, we are commemorating 30 years of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC has four core principles:
- Devotion to the best interests of the child
- The right to life, survival and development
- Respect for the views of young people.
UNICEF believes the Youth Advocacy Guide is a tool for young people to access what is envisioned in the Convention.
There is a need to create deeper change, the kind that challenges mentalities and forces systematic, structural change. Young people need to develop a deeper understanding of how these systemic spaces work: how to get invited to high level meetings, how to read and understand policy documents, how to comment on white papers, and how to hold politicians, or community leaders, accountable for promises made.
The Guide will help young people, as they embark on new fact-finding missions, to better understand youth issues, develop advocacy plans, and meaningfully engage with policy. It also has sections on the importance of networking with like-minded individuals and how best to research topics of interest.
Young environmentalist and Côte d’Ivoire workshop participant, Kherann, believes the UNICEF Youth Advocacy Guide can help him engage with lawmakers and existing policies, relating to environmental awareness. Young feminists, Linda and Leticia, believe the Guide can help them connect with like-minded people, empower women to stand up to patriarchy and rid society of discriminatory practices in Kenya and Mozambique.
Linda Olango from Kenya says: “We (young people) are important because we are the upcoming leaders. We are the upcoming investors. The upcoming everything in this country, so we, and our voice, really matter. We need to make an impact in our communities.”
Ensuring meaningful participation protects more than just our human rights, it has the potential to protect humanity itself. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to the voices and opinions of young people. The Guide aims to help activists along their advocacy journeys.
The UNICEF Youth Advocacy Guide can be found here.
Maryam Elgoni is the UNICEF Youth Engagement Officer and Project Lead for the Youth Advocacy Guide.