Youth voices for change: Why we should all be listening to young leaders

There are 1.8 billion youth, between the ages of 10-24, at the forefront of movements for equality, justice and dignity for all. Yes, we are thinking of them today, because it’s International Youth Day. But they are actually raising their voices and demanding a better future every day. They haven’t resigned to the old norms and they have the power to imagine and activate new norms.

As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms healthcare services, disrupts education, livelihoods and social lives, and increases the burden of care, young people are advocating for themselves and the needs of the communities. They want their priorities reflected in COVID-19 response packages, they want racial equality, gender equality and climate action. They want a better, more sustainable world.

We asked some youth activists about their hopes for the future and what building back better means for them.

On the digital gender gap and backlash to gender equality

Anya Kathpalia. Photo: Arjun C. Kathpalia

“During the lockdown, video conferencing, online classes and other digital platforms have allowed us to work and study from home and to enjoy entertainment and many other activities. Digital platforms can be great enablers as well as great inhibitors.

In India, there are half as many female internet users as there are male internet users. The [gender gap] is even higher in rural areas. Women aren’t benefitting as much as men. Now there is a lot of content being circulated online ridiculing men who do household work. The men who were helping with household chores now see it as a challenge to their masculinity. What messages are communicated online will determine whether our society takes 100 steps forward or backward.”

– Anya Kathpalia, 15, India

On young women’s strength through solidarity

Katrina Leclerc. Photo courtesy of Katrina Leclerc

“Young women have unique experiences – often lived through intersectional realities – that can contribute meaningfully to social change and decision-making. And, young women have, for far too long, been told that their voices do not matter. I disagree.

As young women, we have to challenge social norms and not settle for the status quo. To do this, we need to support one another. Hating and belittling [each other] is hurtful to our advancement.”

– Katrina Leclerc, 24, Canada

On the importance of intersectional approaches across movements

Renata Koch Alvarenga. Photo: Natalie Lucas

“As an ecofeminist, my work in gender and climate advocacy is centered around intersectionality, and it will continue to be so. Intersectional environmentalism highlights the importance of taking into consideration vulnerable communities alongside the environment, because many social justice issues, such as sexism and racism, are intrinsically overlapping.

We need to incorporate anti-racism into our daily lives, and for me, that means doing it through my climate work, because there is no climate justice without racial justice.”

– Renata Koch Alvarenga, 23, Brazil

On coming together, while staying physically distant

Mohamed Ali Raddaoui. Photo courtesy of Mohamed Ali Raddaoui

“I believe that youth in my country should speak up against intimate partner and domestic violence. Victims must be empowered, oppressors must be punished by law. Virtual platforms should not spread hate, discrimination or normalize the culture of violence. During the lockdown, I joined virtual campaigns and movements on social media to fight domestic violence and to support people experiencing hate speech, violence and discrimination.

During the lockdown, the SDG-camps started virtual camps all around Tunisia. We trained youth from different Tunisian organizations and associations…we helped young leaders learn social entrepreneurship to create their own social businesses and social startups.”

– Mohamed Ali Raddaoui, 21, Tunisia

On demanding a better future

Atilla Yoldas. Photo: Julide Yoldas

“To me, “building back better” after COVID-19 means using the perspectives we gained during this time to build a community that is irrevocably equal. We need to understand how isolation, fear and risks are factors that tear down our society.

In my country, our youth prioritized these issues even before the pandemic through social media activism and demonstrations. It’s time for the rest of our society to realize the value of working on issues such as violence against women and toxic masculinity. This has become crystal clear because of COVID-19—more and more become victims when the doors are closed.”

– Atilla Yoldas, 27, Sweden

On re-thinking our own role in activism

Leah Namugerwa. Photo courtesy of Leah Namugerwa

“Before COVID-19, there was a crisis known as the climate crisis. I don’t understand what people mean by going back to normal, unless they are referring to their abnormal behaviours of polluting our planet. This is time for everyone to reflect on their contribution to our planet. We should be asking ourselves tough questions. I think we should maintain the lifestyle we’ve adopted during COVID-19.

The urgency used to respond to COVID-19 should also be used in addressing to climate change.”

– Leah Namugerwa, 15, Uganda

On the intersections of migration, feminism and racial justice

Shila Block. Photo: Greta Linkogel

“As a daughter to Iranian migrants in Germany, I experienced the intersection of sexism and racism in Germany all my life. Therefore, my thoughts and work have always had a racial justice perspective. But I was often the only non-white person present in spaces where I was working to make the world a better place. I want to create spaces where youth participation and leadership is more inclusive.

To me ‘building back better’ means to transform our society into a more just one after COVID-19. Seeing the movement around George Floyd’s death all over the world, I see how my generation is acknowledging racism as a systemic issue and demanding radical change. I think that combining all fights for justice, for example gender equality or climate justice, with the fight for racial justice should be a priority for our generation.”

– Shila Block, 23, Germany