30 May 2019

Africa: The New Face of Activism - Youth

United Nations — Rather than waiting for adults to act, more young girls and boys are standing up and speaking out on the world's pressing issues.

In recent years, the international community has seen a rise in youth engagement from education activist Malala Yousafzai to climate change warrior Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez.

"More often than not, young people in our world today are a lightning rod for change. You show the courage and persistence that is often lacking among older generations," said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the recent Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum.

"Because it is your future, your livelihoods, your freedom, your security, your environment, you do not and you must not take no for an answer.... engaging youth globally is essential for the well-being of the entire world," he added.

According to the UN, there are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10-24, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries. These figures are only expected to grow as closer to 2 billion young people are projected to turn 15 between 2015 and 2030.

It is therefore more essential than ever for young people to mobilise in order to achieve the change they want and need in their communities and the world.

Most recently, youth walked out of classrooms and onto the streets, demanding political action on climate change. On May 24, there were over 2,300 school strikes in more than 130 countries.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish student who sparked the global youth climate movement stated: "We proved that it does matter what you do and that no one is too small to make a difference."

"Your voices give me hope," said Guterres in response to the climate strikes.

In Northern Bangladesh, Kumar Bishwajit Barman has also worked to improve his community and those who live there.

At just 18 years old, Barman and his friends established the Ashar Allo Pathshala school to help stop child marriage and drug abuse.

According to the UN Children's Fund, Bangladesh has the fourth-highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world and the second-highest number of absolute child brides.

Approximately 59 percent of girls in the South Asian country are married before their 18th birthday ad 22 percent are married before the age of 15.

In 2010, Barman saw that an 11-year-old student was going to drop out of school to be married off and decided to act.

"She is one of many such girls who are made to tie the knot before getting done with primary education... one can only imagine how ruthless I had to be at that time to stop the marriage and get her back to education," said Bishwajit.

"We went to her house and promised to bear all the expenditure required for her study. That was the beginning of our movement against child marriage," he added.

Since then, Bishwajit has helped save at least 1,000 girls from child marriage and provides free education, helping girls pursue higher education.

But such feats were not easy. Barman often received threats whenever he tried to stop an early marriage and struggled financially to sustain operations.

"While we had to survive on tuition jobs, we provided all financial supports for their study... now we have 1,800 volunteers in the entire district to oversee the issues of education and stopping child marriage," he said.

The Ashar Allo Pathshala school also provides education and vocational training to adults, including more than 450 women.

Earlier this year, Bishwajit established a mini-garment factory for women to help create employment.

In 2015, Bishwajit received the Joy Bangla Youth Award for his work in community development and was recently awarded Zonta Club's Centennial Anniversary Award for contributions to women's empowerment.

"All my vision and efforts now center around students," Bishwajit said, who turned down university to continue his work.

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