MENA adolescents and youth are in the driving seat

The second symposium on Adolescents and Youth in the MENA Region took place from 25-26 September at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is home to approximately 124 million adolescents and youth. The region has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, the world’s highest levels of violence against adolescents, and a significant lack of opportunities for positive engagement within their communities – especially for adolescent girls and young women.

Adolescents and youth in MENA face enormous challenges. Yet young people see themselves as vital to solving these issues. This year’s Evidence Symposium on Adolescents and Youth (ESAY) in MENA, saw 42 young people from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen sit down with 110 regional policy makers, donors, researchers, and practitioners to discuss the latest evidence on, and solutions to key obstacles faced by adolescents and youth.

If you speak to the experts, you will get the same solutions again…you should speak to us, we shake things up, we are the innovators, we will support innovative research and solutions.

— Shams Amer al Beshawi, a 19-year-old from Jordan

Organized by the MENA UN: NGO group and co-chaired by UNICEF and SAVE, the Evidence Symposium is a unique annual event which draws on the energies and talents of young people. It is jointly organized by youth along with academicians, civil society actors, donors and UN partners. With young people setting the agenda and moderating the sessions, this year’s Symposium saw sustainable and scalable solutions implemented by government partners meeting innovative ideas proposed by young people. The goal was to address the two high priority issues identified by adolescents and youth in MENA:

  • the transition from education to employment, and;
  • the mitigation of and response to violence experienced by young people.
A young girl wearing a headscarf and gold rimmed-glasses holds a microphone and speaks
© UNICEF MENA/2018Shorouq Al-Naimat 23, from Jordan during the Evidence Symposium on Adolescents and Youth held in Beirut, Lebanon on 25-26 September, 2018. She attended the event as a young participatory action researcher who was chosen among hundreds of applicants to present her research findings on issues concerning adolescents and youth in the MENA Region.

Apart from reporters, event moderaters and social media managers, were 20 youth participants selected from 541 submissions received for the open calls for research and solutions. They came from a range of backgrounds and included refugees, those living in conflict-affected countries and some of the most marginalised young people in a region experiencing siginificant change and uncertainty. Some, like Ola from Yemen didn’t believe they’d make it there: “When I applied, I never thought I would be selected, and that it would not really be possible for me to come all the way from Yemen – but coming here as a single female, on a 20 hour very difficult journey, is a dream come true.” All of these young people brought energy, determination, expert knowledge of their own communities and innovative approaches to the discussions on sustainable, scalable solutions.

As a young person who started her professional life at UNICEF as a volunteer and now manages teams of young people at a regional event, I am a live example of how investing in youth at a very young age pays off. During the 2018 ESAY, I guided and managed the Adolescents and Youth Reporters, who covered the event from a young people’s perspective, as well as the young Social Media Managers who actively promoted the event to raise awareness on the issues being discussed and presented. The energy, motivation, dedication and commitment of these young people blew me away. They shared their worries, concerns and questions with policy makers and urged them to act.

A young bearded man holding a microphone speaks with a hand half raised.
© UNICEF MENA/2018Mohammed Bahaa Al Haffar, 23, from Syria. He attended the the Evidence Symposium on Adolescents and Youth as a young solution maker also chosen from hundreds of applicants to present creative solution on issues concerning MENA adolescents and youth.

At the end of the two days, we had a clear picture of the evidence, a set of identified, scalable solutions and – just as importantly – a consensus on the persistent gaps which need to be addressed. We also saw a commitment by the partners to address the gaps and empower young people to continue playing a key role in taking forward the recommendations from the Symposium.

Moving forward, the MENA UN: NGO group will continue to invest in the momentum generated to ensure that through the Regional Adolescent and Youth Advisory Majlis, adolescents and youth continue to have access to inclusive platforms to systematically and safely engage in advocacy, express their views, share their knowledge and expertise, and positively engage in their societies.

More information about this and future editions of the Evidence Symposium on the ESAY website. Follow us on Facebook


Natalie Esmail is an Adolescent Development and Participation (ADAP) Consultant at UNICEF.

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