Listen, Learn and Give Young People What They Deserve

Saturday, 20 September 2014 16:41 GMT

Young demonstrators prepare to join a march to the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen on December 12, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If older folks could only get out of their way – or, at least, listen to what they say – young people might just manage to clean up the global mess we’re in and create a sustainable world for both people and planet.

It’s almost a cliché to agonize about the legacy of global chaos and misery that our children and young people are going to inherit. How are they going to deal with the mess we've created?

 The good news is that young people all around the world are already rising to the challenge, and if older folks could only get out of their way – or, at least, listen to what they say – young people might just manage to clean it all up and create a sustainable world for both people and planet.

 We see them everywhere – in businesses, in NGOs, in politics – young people, who are injecting their energy, their passion and their creativity to find new solutions to age-old problems, and they’re making a tremendous difference in their communities in the process.

 Take for example 24-year-old Yemurai Nyoni. When he realized what a major problem child marriage was in his country, Zimbabwe, where one in three girls is married before age 18, he formed Rising Birds. His project educates community leaders about the individual and societal consequences of forced and child marriage, and pressures them to change customs and outlaw these practices. “Real men don’t buy girls,” says one of the signs his successful youth groups have carried in local marches, and his messages are echoing through.

 Or look at 29-year- old Esther Agbarakwe, founder of the Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition, which inspires, empowers and unites ordinary young people in Nigeria around a vision of a cleaner and fairer future.  She has been applauded for her outstanding work as an exceptional climate change policy expert, and she doesn’t shy away from the tough issues linking sustainable development, population and the health and rights of girls and women.  “I believe in development that leads to environmentally sustainable growth,” she says.

 In Mexico, Cecilia García Ruiz was moved by seeing teenage friends abandon school and their dreams of a better life when they became pregnant. She formed the Adolescent and Youth Motherhood Project, which offers peer education and advocacy workshops to young people and uses social media campaigns to press the government for better sexual and reproductive health education programs. “Supporting youth-led projects is important because youth have access to people their age facing similar living conditions,” she says.

 Yemurai, Esther and Cecilia are part of Women Deliver’s Young Leaders program, which gives young people from around the world the tools, skills and opportunities they need to encourage positive change in their communities. And they are just three of the many millions of young people who have the potential to make the world a better place.

 In today’s world more than 3.5 billion people – about half the world population – are under 30 years old.  Yet while those of us in the other half fret about their energy, potential and meeting their future needs, we most often don’t include them in the forums where decisions about their lives are made. And here’s the point: Young people know and understand young people. They are the best-positioned to tell us what young people want and need, and we must ensure that they are at the discussion and decision tables, and that their ideas are heard and put into action.

This week global leaders will gather at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss some of the big issues in the world – climate change, health and rights, war and peace. There will also be discussion on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide global development efforts through 2030.

 Young people’s lives and voices must be front and center in all of this. Their lives need to be captured and counted when we develop differentiated data and statistics. And they themselves can tell us what they need to live up to their full potential: quality education, youth-friendly comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services, skills training, employment – opportunities and hope.

Healthy, educated and productive young people are consumers and producers. They are the present AND the future. If their voices are heard and if global leader are truly serious about meeting young people’s needs, then they are the ones who can solve the tough – but not insurmountable – mess they will inherit. They can break cycles of poverty and help create the type of world we all want for their children.

But this will not come automatically. The world needs to listen, learn and act when young people say: “Nothing about us without us.”  They deserve that.

 --Katja Iversen joined Women Deliver as Chief Executive Officer in March 2014. Previously, she held the position as Chief of Strategic Communication and Public Advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for communication on reproductive health and MDG 5 at UNFPA.