Statement by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka for International Youth Day, 2020: “Youth Engagement for Global Action”

Twenty-eight-year-old Doreen Moracha, a member of the Beijing+25 Youth Taskforce from Kenya, is working with social influencers to translate information around COVID-19 into various local languages. In helping to spread messages about social distancing, sanitization and how to wear personal protective equipment, she is one of many young activists around the world who are actively leading in the response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Today, as we celebrate International Youth Day, UN Women recognizes the immense value of young people like Doreen who are at the forefront of global action for change, both in responding to the pandemic and in working to address the systemic inequalities it has unearthed. Young people bring fresh legs to the race, fresh eyes to see things from new perspectives, new energy for the long road ahead and sure-footed adaptability to change, despite themselves facing complex challenges and vulnerabilities brought on by the pandemic.

With school closures affecting over 1 billion students globally, adolescent girls are at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, early marriage and pregnancy. More than one in six young people have stopped working since the onset of the pandemic, with young women and non-binary youth most affected due to their overrepresentation in the informal economy and in jobs that are lower-paid, less secure and less protected than those of their male counterparts. Limited economic opportunities combined with the effects of school closures will likely lead to an increase in child labour and the exploitation of women, girls and non-binary youth. And the shadow pandemic of violence that has been spiking during lockdowns puts young women and girls at higher risk of domestic violence at a time when social distancing measures hinder their ability to seek support services. 

Despite these challenges, young people are harnessing their expertise and networks to build back better in several key ways. Many are leveraging digital technology to share information on COVID-19 and to accelerate the digitalization of systems for teleworking, healthcare, education and essential goods and services. It is important to that our efforts at recovery work to bridge the digital divide so that all young people are able to access and contribute to the design of these innovations. Young people are also taking to the streets and to social media around the world to address the systemic discrimination that has been exposed by the pandemic and the ensuing global crises. We celebrate the leadership, creativity and commitment that these young people bring to their advocacy for gender equality and racial justice, the protection of their sexual and reproductive rights, climate action, the fair distribution of social and economic goods, and to ending sexual harassment and child marriage.

Last month, we celebrated ten years since the establishment of UN Women. We are still a very young organization, which is perhaps why we feel such a strong commitment to the young women, girls and non-binary youth that we serve. As we work build back better, I urge young people everywhere, in all their diversity, to remember that their equal rights are essential to the fulfilment of our common human dignity and to achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The recent global mobilization for racial justice has shown how systems that perpetuate inequality can be easily disrupted. We are looking to young people to continue disrupting the status quo and to lead the way in building back more equal, unified and resilient societies for all.

The baton is now firmly in the hands of young people who are dedicated to intergenerational leadership and to co-creating the future.