Jayathma Wickramanayake, 27, from Sri Lanka, is the new UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Her role is to expand the UN’s youth engagement and advocacy efforts. She also serves as an adviser to the Secretary-General. Shortly after her extensive tour of the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa in February, she sat down with Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau to discuss her mission. Excerpts:
Africa Renewal: You have just come back from a mission to five countries in Africa. How was it?
Jayathma: It definitely exceeded my expectation! I did not have much exposure to Africa before I took up this job, because my work was mainly in my home country [Sri Lanka], working with youth. So, I never really before now had the opportunity go to Africa and interact with young people, even though I have friends from the region.
Why did you choose Africa and how did it start?
UNFPA – the United Nations Population Fund, approached me with this wonderful proposal of a multi-country mission to Africa. Then a few days before I travelled, my office sent out a tweet announcing the trip and the response was amazing. Upon arrival to each country, the welcome, the level of energy, and the love extended to me was unbelievable. I may be Sri Lankan by birth, but part of me is definitely African by choice.
What were your impressions of the young people you met?
The amount of resilience the young people in the continent have surprised me. You might have seen pictures of us laughing and dancing together, but just before that, we were sitting under a tree talking about issues and challenges these youth face, even to the point of sometimes crying together. I met some who have gone through situations incomprehensible for us sitting here in New York.
What did they tell you were their main concerns?
Young people voiced concerns about lack of access to education, unemployment, migration, and young women’s sexual and reproductive health. These were the core issues discussed in all five countries I visited.
Can you expound a bit on these issues?
On education: the main concern is access to education, but not just any education, but quality education. There is a study that shows that about 30% of the skills acquired in 2015 will not be relevant by 2020. So, in such a rapidly changing world, what should we teach in our schools? Do we teach the usual subjects or do we focus more on skills-development? Young people require skills that are adaptable and can be useful in multiple professions and fields.
On digital divide: Unlike young people living in the urban areas, those in rural areas are left behind in terms of information and technology. There are also girls who do not even have a chance to get basic education, let alone technological education.
On issues affecting girls: Girls face various barriers as they seek education. Often it becomes an issue when they are on their menstrual cycles because they don’t have pads or their schools don’t have adequate sanitary facilities. Some girls’ education is often disrupted to take care of their younger siblings, while others are married off at a very young age or drop out due to teenage pregnancy. Female genital mutilation is another big issue.
On migration: Due to lack of opportunities for young people, many of them risk their lives crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea to get to Italy or other countries to look for better opportunities. Many die in this process of trying to take this extreme path.
What is your office doing to help these young people in Africa?
In my position, I am tasked with bringing the UN closer to young people, and young people closer to the UN. As a representative of the Secretary General, I meet top government officials and other stakeholders and use such opportunities to raise awareness of the issues young people are facing and then urge the officials to address them.
What would you say you achieved during this trip?
The biggest outcome of my mission to Africa was being able to act as a bridge to bring the young people’s concerns to the attention of decisionmakers, urging them to make a difference in young people’s lives and holding them accountable. Having those one-on-one interactions with the young people I meet, some of whom have gone through really tough situations, enables me to bring their voices to the discussions here at the UN. I talked to marginalized young people, as well as innovators, and social entrepreneurs, who inspired me to raise their issues in my meetings with government ministers, parliamentarians, UN Country Teams, and the media in every country I visited.
Any immediate results?
I saw some remarkable results! For instance, the UN Country Team in Nigeria will set up an advisory mechanism for youth to be consulted on its work on the ground.
What are the young people themselves doing to improve their lot?
The mission offered a great opportunity to highlight the amazing contributions these young people themselves are making to improve their communities. For example, in Nigeria I met this young woman – a survivor of rape – who has developed a mobile phone app that can help other young women to report gender-based violence to the nearest police station. This shows that young people are not just victims, they can also bring solutions to the table. And when talking to decision-makers, I was able to highlight this role of young people as agents of positive change, so that they can treat youth as assets, rather than liabilities.
How will you amplify this message?
One of the things I am trying to do is to bring some of these young change-makers to the UN Headquarters for the forthcoming High-Level Political Forum and UN General Assembly to showcase, not just the issues they face, but also the solutions that they bring to the table. I have also tried to amplify this through the UN country teams in various countries.
Do you have any special programmes or campaigns targeting young people in Africa?
Indeed, we do. In fact, one of our biggest campaign is “Not Too Young to Run,” started in Nigeria and aimed at lowering the legal age required to run for office from 40 to 35. We have now made it a global campaign that advocates for the rights of young people to run for elected office. We are working with the interparliamentary union, OHCHR, UNDP, and some other partners on scaling it up. During my trip I also called for youth affirmative action within political parties, urging the official to remove existing barriers to youth participation in decision-making.
What are your views on youth taking seeking positions, not just in politics but also in business and other spheres?
It’s been amazing! Some of the brightest young minds that I’ve met on this job are from Africa. I say that without any bias. I am very impressed by the work young Africans do, they are so creative. On this trip I met young innovators, for example, one of them has invented a three-wheeler which uses solar power, another one had developed an online platform to help candidates running for office to design and organize their political campaigns.
What challenges do young people pushing for space, a seat at the political table, face?
We have identified several layers of barriers that hinder young people from participation. The first layer is at the personal level – having no confidence or belief in themselves. The second layer is social – family and friends around a young person, who may sometimes discourage them from venturing into politics. And third is political party structures. Young people are under-represented in political parties. The same for the women too.
What’s your advice to young people who get into leadership?
When you get to a position of power, always remember why you are in that position in the first place. Thousands of young people look up to you. Also, don’t forget to create a space for other young people to come onboard.
What values should they live by?
They should live up to the values that we, as young people, have been demanding all along – integrity, transparency, saying no to corruption and standing up for democracy. This could mean sometimes doing things in unconventional ways, maybe changing systems completely upside down – we need transformational change.