What does youth engagement mean today? How and why are young people increasingly stepping up to spur global action and catalyze change?

The answers lie in the voices, actions and initiatives of young people eager to build up their communities and create a better world.

Mounting discontent with political, social and cultural structures has spurred young people globally to rise up and engage with the systems around them, becoming resourceful advocates for gender equality, racial justice, climate action and peace.

Young people are on the front lines in the fight for a better world 

The theme of International Youth Day 2020, “Youth Engagement for Global Action,” presented an opportunity to celebrate and amplify these young people's actions and to applaud the strength, courage and immense potential and innovation found in youth-led initiatives.

This year's International Youth Day fell during a global emergency, when youth engagement is more critical than ever. Despite the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on youth and adolescents — particularly on education, disruption of routines and activities, and mental health and well-being — young people are on the front lines of the response, spreading awareness and devising inventive solutions to the effects of the pandemic on communities and economies.

Young people today are ever more aware of their capacity to create change and solutions; we have a responsibility to empower and enable their continued engagement. Below, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks on the significance of International Youth Day 2020:

Peacebuilding is one of the key areas where children and adolescents are raising their voices. In South Sudan, young people are sending the message that peace cannot wait any longer. The UNICEF-supported Poems for Peace project has given South Sudan's youth an opportunity to advocate for lasting peace and to use poetry to explain in their own words that they have had enough of the horrors of war and violence and that they embrace peace for the stability of their future. 

A team of young people in Kyrgyzstan created a Bot to support victims of domestic violence

Young people are also creating digital solutions to respond to social issues affecting their communities. In Kyrgyzstan, there has been a rise in domestic violence, particularly with the stay home mandate during COVID-19. In response, young people participating in a UNICEF-supported hackathon created the ClickHelp Bot project to help women and youth recognize signs of domestic violence, as well as connect them with the nearest crisis centers and psychologists.

Anastasia, a member of the team who developed the ClickHelp Bot project, said: “Every year in Kyrgyzstan, the number of registered acts of domestic violence is growing, but there are a huge number of cases that are not taken into account, because not all victims are ready to seek help." 

From the very beginning, we set ourselves the goal of developing a bot that will help at least one woman recognize signs of violence and connect her with people who will support and help.

Youth tech innovations are also assisting with the exchange of vital information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the national Hackathon, Hack4Youth, young innovators from Niger have designed and developed an interactive web platform to help communities and young people get information, share concerns and report alerts of COVID-19.

In Niger, young people developed an interactive web platform to help communities stay safe from COVID-19

Jamilou Idi Saadou, one of the members of the innovation team, spoke on the importance of youth engagement during this crisis: “Young people represent almost two-thirds of Niger population and if at least one young person per village will be engaged in fighting COVID-19, 20,000 girls and boys will spread the word about protection measures, symptoms and assist in collecting cases to be reported to the health system.”

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to remain in place, young people are also faced with the challenge of exploring new ways to deliver peer education during social distancing. Children and adolescents in Botswana, for example are mobilizing their peers virtually through their social media platforms including Whats App and Facebook. Volunteers are providing peer support by spreading verified information on prevention of COVID-19 from UNICEF and WHO websites. Volunteers are also disseminating information on where young people can access HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, on general health and well-being practices and on where to report domestic violence during lock down.

In the area of climate change, young people have made their voices louder than ever. For example, UNICEF Bolivia supported Bolivian adolescents and youth to form a nationwide adolescent and youth climate organization, Consejo Juvenil por la Madre Tierra. The organization’s achievements received national and international coverage and include drafting legislation and organizing a nationwide awareness campaign for the reduction of plastic bag use.

In 2019, more than 4 million adolescents across 113 countries participated in civic engagement activities through UNICEF-supported programs

Youth-led initiatives are better placed to succeed and create lasting impact when they are supported by national governments. Empowering youth to engage in their communities is imperative but ensuring their representation in political spaces is equally vital. In Jordan, the National Youth Engagement and Volunteering Movement (Nahno) has been integrated in the Government’s official response to COVID-19. More than 33,000 young volunteers have registered and carried out activities including tutoring, educational support, portal and app development, online workshops, administration of social media and community engagement.

The contributions of young people within their local contexts will go on to outline global political discourse, making certain that issues of equality are at the forefront. In 2019, more than 4 million adolescents across 113 countries participated in or led civic engagement activities through UNICEF-supported programs. Working together with young people helps UNICEF undertake smarter programming and promotes inclusivity of youth voices in decision and policymaking. There is still a long way to go: Progress will take perseverance and resilience but there is no doubt that empowering young people is the most viable approach towards sustainable change.