UN General Assembly hears from young people
“Give us spaces for dialogue” Ixchel Adolfo, a young leader from Guatemala said at the opening of the high-level meeting on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women continuing that “the people who know about our needs are us.”
Indeed, a powerful message delivered from a young female leader to world leaders that gathered virtually to raise attention to topics relevant to them, and to issues that they feel are important. During the UN General Assembly’s General Debate many Member States took the floor and incorporated language on youth in their statements. Some countries spoke about issues like the need to build an inclusive society where young people can plan for their future in safety, and others expressed their desire to invest in youth empowerment and innovation to better equip them to lead on issues of today that will be there for their generation to deal with, such as, climate change.
Some countries such as Denmark and Norway shared their speaking time between a high-level representative and a youth-delegates — something that many youth-groups have been advocating for a long time — allowing the youth to speak for themselves in the spirit of “nothing for the youth without the youth.”
There were multiple side-events under the auspices of the General Assembly that included youth and focused on youth-related issues. One such event was hosted by Plan International with partners and addressed “A Girls’ Rights in the COVID-19 Crisis: and Intergenerational Dialogue”.
The event included a presentation from Plan International sharing their new research undertaken to address the gaps in understanding of the social impacts of COVID-19 and on the consequences for young people, especially girls. The research looked specifically at the impact of the current pandemic on girls and young women, collecting data from over 7,000 girls across 14 countries. The presentation touched upon the primary and secondary effects that COVID-19 has had on the lives of girls, including the worsening of pre-existing inequalities.
Plan International Youth Leaders in Australia and Viet Nam also shared the conclusions from a second piece of research: A Better Normal: Girls call for a revolutionary reset. This study looked at issues, both challenges and opportunities, that COVID-19 has exposed in systems across the world, drawing on the views of 1,060 girls and young women from 99 countries around the world. Key finds were identified in the answer to the question “what does a better normal” look like to girls. This better normal includes girls feeling valued and heard, a normal where gender inequity that restricts women is addressed, one where women and girls are centered in decision making and leadership positions, and the transformation on the education system and climate system. One of the key messages from the Report is inclusion and equality in power, particularly a focus on girls’ role in leadership and policy creation.
Another event shed light on “Youth perspectives on climate migration”. The UN Major Group for Children and Youth, IOM, Refugees International, Uprose, and Climate Cardinals discussed topics from the importance of agreeing on a legal definition of who counts as a climate or environmental migrant to the relationship between climate change and colonialism.
A representative from the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Bologna advocated for the use of the term “environmental migrants” because the notion is broader than “climate migrants” and would therefore include more people and reflect reality more accurately. A senior thematic expert in migration and climate change from IOM noted that climate and environmental factors have recently been included in global policy reports, and emphasized two points, first that countries need to focus on climate action so that people are not forced to migrate, and second when people have no other choice but to leave, this needs to be facilitated at the regional and international level. She noted that while youth-related issues have been increasingly incorporated in the policy discussion on environment and climate change at the global level, this dimension is lacking at the national and regional levels.
A senior advocate and program manager from Refugee International stated that most people moving due to climate change do so within the borders of their countries and are therefore not entitled to the legal protection as international refugees. She noted that most of the images we see on climate change are from the South to the North and noted that this is not necessarily accurate as a lot of the movement happens within countries, such as rural to urban areas. She also highlighted that the language that we use matters. Seeing migrants as agents of change, rather than narrowly as vulnerable populations, is important in how we frame and discuss this issue.
The founder of Zero Hour also spoke about why representation and framing matters. He outlined that on their platform Zero Hour names four systems of oppression as the cause of climate change, namely, capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy, noting that these are all intertwined. He noted that climate change is the new colonialism based on the areas that it is impacting, the Global North being responsible for most of the global emissions and South being most affected by the results of the effects of climate change with a high impact.
Speaking about representation and inclusion, a member from the UN SG’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change noted that the Middle East is often left out from conversations about climate change which is a shame because temperatures in that region are rising by more than twice the global average. The Caribbean region and Puerto Rico specifically were addressed by young female leader from Uprose. She spoke about how climate change impacts the region and shared her experience in working in an organization that has an inter-generational approach to climate justice and urged others to adopt this approach.
Finally, the importance of working with youth to “build back better” during and after COVID-19, was recognized in the results of the UN75 survey. The UN75 dialogue participants overwhelmingly called for the UN to be more inclusive of the diversity of actors in the 21st century. They identified the need for greater inclusion of civil society, women, youth, vulnerable groups, cities and local authorities, businesses, regional organisations, and other international organisations.
The inclusion of not only youth topics but young people actively participating in the UN General Assembly is noteworthy. It is a direct result of their tireless efforts to expand space for themselves, and to build alliances with and within the UN and other multilateral platforms to make their voices heard. After all, it is young people who must be empowered to express how they see the world evolving in the years to come, as they will be the ones leading it.