This year has been a momentous and often tumultuous year for young people everywhere. Millions are taking a forceful stand on issues that they feel will affect them for years, if not generations, to come.
Take the climate crisis, for instance. Perhaps more than any movement before it, the #FridaysforFuture movement has galvanised the voices of the young generation to fight for a better tomorrow and demand that governments act on the defining challenge of our time. In Hong Kong, students have emerged as the leading forces of the pro-democracy movement that has taken to the streets for months now. And in the US, it was high school students in Florida and elsewhere who have joined forces and raised their voices to demand an end to gun violence.
Against this backdrop of purpose-driven youth activism, it seems more than fitting that the theme for today’s UN Human Rights Day is “Youth Standing up for Human Rights”.
In UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ own words: “Young people are marching, organising, and speaking out for the right to a healthy environment, for the equal rights of women and girls, to participate in decision-making, and to express their opinions freely. They are marching for their right to a future of peace, justice and equal opportunities.”
I have been utterly inspired by these young activists around the world who are willing to take great risks, including risk to their own lives, to stand up for the values they hold dear and demand change.
Some of those young human rights defenders are part of The NewNow, a youth coalition incubated by Virgin Unite and led by nine rising global leaders to take collective action over some of the world’s greatest issues.
It was wonderful to hear Victor Ochen’s powerful story at a Virgin Unite gathering this year. Victor was born in northern Uganda during a time of terrible violent conflict, when many boys were recruited as child soldiers by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. He spent the first 21 years of his life in the refugee camps. At the age of 13, after his brother disappeared, Victor formed a youth peace club in the camp where his family lived, and led a campaign to persuade young boys to resist recruitment as child soldiers. Victor went on to found the Africa Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). AYINET has provided reconstructive medical and psycho-social care to tens of thousands of victims of war, rape and mutilation. He is credited with advancing the movement to include youth in peacebuilding efforts throughout Africa and regularly supports African Union efforts to achieve this aim in post-conflict countries.
It was also great to hear Jaha Dukureh speak recently at the One Young World Summit. Jaha is a leading grassroots activist in the movement to end FGM and Early Child Marriage. Safe Hands for Girls, the organisation she founded in 2005, is a survivor-led network. After working with the Obama administration to make it a crime to transport American girls abroad for FGM, Jaha returned to her native Gambia, where Safe Hands for Girls has now worked with thousands of families, as well as traditional, community and religious leaders to address the root cultural causes of these harmful practices. Having successfully campaigned for laws prohibiting FGM in Gambia in 2016, Jaha scaled up her efforts this year and brought together the first high-level leadership conference on ending FGM and Child Marriage in Africa, with the aim of developing an action plan and financial commitments to end FGM and Early Child Marriage by 2030.
Another of The NewNow leaders is Abdalaziz Alhamza, a citizen journalist and human rights defender. He founded the campaign group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently whose story was powerfully told in the award-winning documentary City of Ghosts. Abdalaziz began his work when his hometown of Raqqa in Syria was captured by ISIS. He hoped to bring international attention to the atrocities being committed daily. At the same time, the group realised that the ISIS stronghold was changing local culture, potentially permanently, and that for peace to be possible in the future, local youth would need a different narrative than the one ISIS allowed. With resources from family and friends, Abdalaziz and his team began publishing a de-radicalisation magazine,which they distributed locally. Having lost close friends and family to ISIS, and with his life threatened, Abdalaziz escaped to safety, first in Europe and now in the US. He continues to expose the atrocities committed in Syria and is working to change global views held of those people radicalised through life under ISIS rule.
Jaha, Abdalaziz and Victor and so many others give me hope that young people will be leading the change the world needs to see now. There isn’t a minute to waste, and we all should support, protect and celebrate them.