Today, on International Youth Day, Women Thrive Alliance celebrates the power of young people.
“Young people are the future” is a tired phrase because it’s not really true. Young people aren’t just the future, they’re the present. There are 1.8 billion young people in the world today. That’s the largest adolescent and youth population ever. In many countries (particularly in developing countries) young people are the majority.
These 1.8 billion young people are the drivers of development, not merely the recipients, and we need to start treating them like it.
Especially in places where high-level, globally-reaching decisions are made, like the United Nations, you don’t see a lot of young people. True, there are initiatives like the Youth Advocacy Group that brought the voices and priorities of young people into the global debate on equitable education and many countries like Belgium that include a youth representative in their national delegation. But too often the few youth that are allowed into these decision-making spaces are sidelined, asked only to speak on “youth issues” (like women should only speak on “women’s issues”?), and are not included as full participants.
With so many young people in the world, we can’t afford to shut them out of decision-making at any level. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are promises that all countries made to achieve peace, prosperity, and progress by 2030. It doesn’t make any sense to say to 1.8 billion people, “Once you turn 25, then you can have a say in how we implement and achieve these goals.”
Space needs to be made at the United Nations for youth to voice their concerns, share their solutions, and lead. The same spaces need to be created at local and national levels. Bringing young people in as full partners in development and not as tokenistic representatives of “youth issues” builds ownership and trust, fosters intergenerational dialogue, and sparks new ideas and innovations. This isn’t an easy task to accomplish – local leaders, governments, and United Nations agencies and mechanisms will need to commit resources to creating these spaces for youth to contribute on an even playing field, and ensure that these spaces are safe, equitable, and effective.
By excluding youth from local, national, and global decision-making about the policies and programs that affect their lives (in the present and in the future), we virtually ensure that those policies won’t be responsive to the needs of young people. We ignore some of the most valuable experts on pressing development challenges and we perpetuate the barriers that hold young people back from learning, thriving, and participating.
Too many young people face the brunt of poverty and discrimination – these systemic barriers and harmful practices hit girls and young women particularly hard. Every year, 15 million girls are forced to marry before age 18, a fundamental violation of human rights. Millions of girls are unable to access school because of their sex: for example, in South and West Asia 80 percent of girls that are out-of-school now will never even start school (compared to just 16% for boys).
Gender inequality is, without question, an issue highly relevant to young people and something they should be involved in addressing. Work to achieve SDG 5 – a global commitment to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – needs to start today and it needs to include everyone, regardless of age.
Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network (GIWYN), an Alliance member in Nigeria, builds and strengthens youth participation in sustainable development to help girls and women access their rights and achieve SDG 5 in their country. GIWYN says, “Youth should engage in the leading role and be at the heart of the implementation and accountability process of the SDG.” They’re fighting to include youth at every level and every step in the implementation of the SDGs in Nigeria. From GIWYN:
“Youth in Nigeria want their government to fulfil their promises by ensuring that they have quality reproductive health information and service, health care and development, education, job opportunity, safety, privacy, and bodily autonomy. They also need web designed knowledge of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and should be trained on how to use them for the new forms of social activism.”
Women Thrive Alliance is supporting members like GIWYN and other youth-focused and youth-led organizations to ensure that young people are leading the charge to Achieve SDG 5 in their countries. To join our global movement and share your priorities for women and girls’ rights, follow up on Facebook and Twitter. Check out our video of youth advocates here.