We’ve always been told throughout our youthful and adolescent years that the grownups will always be there to deal with all of our concerns, needs, and find ways to protect us. Whenever you need help, get a grown up. Occasionally, that’s not what actually happens, and it may surprise us to know that young people are just as courageous and capable of taking matters into their own hands, to demand a better future, and to change the hearts and minds of people worldwide. These are just some of the stories of the world’s youth and their most gracious contributions to our global peace.
Peace is a relatively big term here. It does not necessarily refer to the literal stopping of violence, although it could, it also refers to the ability to bridge gaps in the world, see different sides of the argument, take on tasks far beyond their age and in doing so, make the world a better place through non-violent means, to ensure that violence is never necessary. We all owe them a great debt. A famous example is of Malala Yousafazai, the resilient Pakistani teenager that was shot in the head by the Taliban for her activism. Malala was relentless in her efforts to ensure that all girls are given access to the education they deserve, despite the personal risk she knew was possible. In standing up to the Taliban and fighting for girls’ rights in education and elsewhere, Malala’s contribution to peace is undeniable. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to agree, too.
Why do we need the youth to take the reins on some matters? There is simply no other proper example to explain that, other than to cite the gun control discourse that is raging through the United States today and has been for years now. Where the adults and lawmakers have for too long been silent on issues that supposedly do not affect them, or they consider to be “politicized” issues, Emma Gonzales and the Parkland five – the surviving students from the Stoneman Douglas Shooting that occurred earlier this year in Florida – have taken up the mantle of peaceful activism to ensure that there is concrete action taken on the issues that affect them the most.
Nevertheless, the issues that require the youth to contribute to peace in ways that our leaders are either unable or unwilling too is not just limited to divisive issues within countries such as Pakistan and the United States. The instances where youth are needed to intervene can also include conflicts between states as well. The GCC conflict between Qatar and its GCC neighbours, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia has broken apart the very integrated fabric between the Gulf societies, leaving many families split up in either Qatar or any of the other blockading nations, unable to visit or communicate with one another. This conflict is mainly one between leaders, rather than between people, and the youth in this case, and most prominently Dana Al Anzy – a Qatari youth activist whose accolades are numerous and and advocates for the right of access to education for children in many regions – have risen above politics to publicly extend a familial hand to their neighbours.
By choosing dialogue and openness, while rejecting being dragged into a conflict that was not of their making, Dana and many of the youth in the entire GCC just like her, are creating the bonds and ties between people that will last long after this conflict has evaporated into the dustbins of history. By choosing the nonviolent and cooperative way to lead forward, Dana and many like her, have chosen to contribute to their regional peace and not let temporary political theatre jeopardize the ties that bind the people of the Gulf.
But, at the end of the day, what are the strongest contributions that the youth can give to peace? They provide a perspective that has not yet been tainted by prejudice, history or partisanship. Their optimism, hope, and neverending comradery for one another, as humans, give those that are far beyond a youthful era the ability to sympathize with the innocence of these young people. There’s a saying that goes, up until a child is 18, parents teach the youth, after the age of 18, the youth teach the parents. There is no example more fitting to that saying, than the work of the courageous ambassadors of the Young Health Programme, an initiative created by global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, that helps empower the youth of the world to be the driving force for change in the world.
Combining research on global health issues, with the resources available for advocacy by the youths that are most vulnerable to these issues, is one of the ways that the Young Health Programme has given a much-needed resurgence to the discourse of global health. This includes changing norms, behaviours and perspectives. The story of the incredibly brave Editar Ochieng, a young woman from Nairobi, Kenya, who was raped at the age of 6, and then again gang-raped at the age of 16 by four men, three of whom were family members, is only one indication of the strength of the youth and what they have to contribute. Editar ended up conceiving from that traumatic incident, and as a young girl, what she wanted most in the world, was to take her high school exams. So she went to the closest thing there was to a doctor in her Nairobi slums, who performed an abortion on her, using a crude weapon. In the aftermath of that, she got cervical cancer.
The heartbreaking story of Editar does not end there though, as she now has moved on from the horrors of her past to empower other youth in her community by performing workshops and engagement forums, counselling others that are now going through similar experiences and started female mentorship programs, all of which are focused on sexual and reproductive health. Kennedy Chiduziem Ekezie-Joseph is another defiant young man from Nigeria who filled in where his community leaders had failed and became a leader in his own right. Kennedy refused to allow the norms of domestic abuse and female genital mutilation to thrive in his community and is helping to form a national movement for women’s rights in his country. If these achievements alone aren’t enough of a contribution to peace, Kennedy also started the Calabar Youth Council for Women’s Rights in 2010, a youth-led nonprofit to end gender-based violence.
One thing we cannot forget to attribute to the contribution of the youth is in the fight against stigma and prejudice. Most people have a stigma towards certain diseases that are unfounded, based on old knowledge of infections or fear, and are myths of curses. Prominent forms of this stigmas occur with those that are HIV positive, but it is also the case of Lea Masamo, a youth activist from Kenya who was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia at the age of 3. In her native Kenya, sickle-cell anemia is often considered a curse to the child or the family, and most sufferers of it face an average lifespan of 15 years in Kenya, whereas the average lifespan in developed countries can be between 40-60 years. Even at Lea’s young age, she’s now an active member of the Children’s Sickle Cell Foundation in Kenya, and a speaker at multiple other organizations.
Already a leader, Lea and all those who hold her similar beliefs and principles on improving the lives of those around them, has already put herself in the spotlight to fight against stigmas that already harm the most vulnerable demographics of their respective populations. The actions of all those before-mentioned youth leaders may seem small and trivial on their own in the global context, but individually, and locally, each one of these youths and many more like them all over the world, contribute far more than we can imagine bringing peace to the people around them and the communities they belong too.
By using their voices, education, science, legislation, advocacy and above all, a steadfast resilience in their beliefs, these young men and women create a space for dialogue and improving the lives of those that are in the most need of it. More noncombative spaces are desperately needed in the world; where education overrules fear, understanding pushes away backwards norms, feuds are calmed by integration and connections, innocence overpowers corruption, and determination begets leadership. The youth have proudly bridged the most important gaps within our societies around the world, giving ignored issues the urgency they deserve and giving people the ability to empower themselves. The world’s actual leaders could stand to learn a lot from the youths of today.