The Road to Generation Equality Forum Paris: An Opportunity to Accelerate Progress with Adolescents and Young People

Women Deliver in partnership with Adolescent Girls Investment Plan (AGIP)

Thubelihle Nkiwane speaking atan event during the International Day of the Girl Child, where she addressed girls on taking up careers in STEM.
Thubelihle Nkiwane speaking at an event during the International Day of the Girl Child, where she addressed girls on taking up careers in STEM.

Over the last 25 years, the world has made tremendous strides in shaping a more gender-equal world. Still, millions of adolescent girls and young women face barriers to realizing their health and rights. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has created new setbacks and widened the gulf for girls and women, the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), which began in Mexico City in March and culminates in Paris in June, affords us a unique opportunity to accelerate progress for all.

The upcoming Forum at Paris presents a moment for decision makers to come forward and make bigger, bolder commitments for gender equality. But real progress cannot be achieved without the meaningful engagement and co-leadership of adolescents and young people.

Paris provides us with an exciting opportunity to think anew and usher in fresh ways to partner with young people to build a gender-equal world. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women says it best: “Young people and girls — especially those mobilizing at the grassroots — are at the heart of the vision and mission of Generation Equality. Their activism, passion, and impatience has carried the Generation Equality Forum to this moment. They take forward the belief that collaboration, solidarity, and intersectional mobilization can finally bring about the change we need to see for women and girls everywhere to bring about a more equal, greener future.”

The Adolescent Girls Investment Plan (AGIP), a global, intergenerational coalition of which Women Deliver is part, is supporting adolescents and young people’s meaningful engagement and co-leadership at the Generation Equality Forum and amplifying their aspirations and recommendations as they look ahead to Paris and beyond.

Here are the top three actions that emerged from our conversations with many of these adolescent and youth leaders based on their experience so far:

Paris provides us an opportunity to rethink the rules of engagement

Over 13,000 participants from 85 countries, 46 percent of whom were under the age of 34, converged virtually for the Forum in Mexico City, according to organizers. AGIP, with the support and leadership of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force, helped elevate 30 adolescents and young people to share their expertise, experiences, and calls to action with this global audience. “The Generation Equality Forum Mexico City not only gave me a platform to share my ideas and thoughts on gender inequality, but it also gave me an opportunity to connect with other young advocates around the world and learn about their ideas and thoughts,” said 16-year-old Darshana Rijal, a gender equality advocate from Nepal and a Women Deliver Young Leader.

As Darshana looks ahead to Paris, she welcomes more spaces for young people to connect with one another, to align on their shared advocacy priorities, and to remain connected in the future. “Since GEF is a global convening, it could be a platform for us as young advocates to connect with leaders from around the world and build connections, which I personally think is really important for us as young advocates,” she said.

While involving young advocates to demonstrate their expertise and voice their recommendations at such global convenings is an excellent start, 17-year-old Kalpa Garg of India wants to see more government representation from the countries where the young advocates come from. Kalpa, a Women Deliver Young Leader, shared that in her case, it would be helpful to ensure decision makers from the Indian context are on the panel or in the space when she is sharing her experiences and recommendations. Oindrila, a 19-year-old advocate with Fridays for Future, also echoed that she would like to see the conversation reach more politicians and stakeholders. “We need to engage directly with relevant decision makers, not just each other,” she said.

While a few panels at Mexico City were multi-generational and centered the voices and lived experiences of adolescents, and the concurrent space offered an informal and safe space to enhance participation at the forum, Paris presents an opportunity to build on these efforts and to think more comprehensively about adolescent engagement.

Young people participating at Mexico City presented the Young Feminist Manifesto, which echoes many of the aspirations we heard from the young people engaged through the AGIP partnership. Young people want to see more clarity on their role at GEF, a shift away from top-down approaches, and the resources to ensure robust youth engagement and co-leadership. Paris presents us all with an opportunity to manifest these recommendations.

Meaningful youth engagement requires time and resources. Organizers and hosts should explore ways they can share knowledge and build capacity of adolescents and young people in the lead-up to such global forums. Moreover, it is important for all of us to recognize the time and labor of speakers, including adolescents and young people, and to explore honorariums when we ask advocates to step away from their important work to share their expertise.

We need bigger, bolder commitments — and accountability

The Forum in Mexico City resulted in a wave of catalytic commitments designed to inspire and mobilize the larger commitment-making efforts that will take center stage at Paris. Mexico’s National Institute for Women (INMUJERES) in partnership with UN Women launched an initiative for an Alliance for Care Work, in a bold effort to confront the care burden that impedes women’s economic opportunity, and which has risen due to the pandemic. Women Moving Millions –a global network of individual women philanthropists –made a commitment to raise USD 100 Million by Paris to support the entirety of the Action Coalition agenda. A partnership between the Ford Foundation, the Equality Fund, and the Government of Canada announced a commitment highlighting the importance of feminist funding in achieving gender equality including: a USD 15 Million commitment from Ford Foundation to the Equality Fund; plans to initiate a multistakeholder Global Alliance for Sustainable Feminist Movements; and a USD 10 Million commitment from Canada to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a USD 500,000 investment in youth-led organizations to support inter-generational voices in developing the gender equality agenda.

Young people are looking to Paris as a turning point. “I think after these dialogues, even though we are still grappling with COVID-19, measures need to be taken to ensure that what we speak about or intend to do begins to manifest at ground level,” said 18-year-old advocate Thubelihle Nkiwane from Zimbabwe who works with Plan International. “Small steps eventually create big outcomes.”

In addition to commitments, adolescent advocates shared that they wanted to see clear accountability and frameworks through which advocates can help shape decisions that affect them and to hold commitment makers and their governments accountable to deliver. “I think girls should not be called to talk about their experience as activists alone. They should be strong at tables where decisions are made,” said 18-year-old Virginia Maria Barchiesi, a UNICEF volunteer and Women Deliver Young Leader from Italy.

It is time to move from dialogue to action

“Heading into GEF Paris, I really hope that young advocates will be heard and brought into action,” said Darshana.

The Generation Equality Forum is a platform to galvanize action. More than 25 years since the landmark Beijing Conference, action and implementation lag behind rhetoric. According to UN Women, 20 percent of girls and women report experiencing sexual and physical violence each year; 20 percent are married before the age of 18; and a whopping 55 percent are unable to make their own decisions about contraception, consensual sex, and healthcare.

While the Forum at Mexico City offered a space for adolescents to discuss their needs and demands, and offer solutions to the challenges they face, Paris can be a place where decision makers share how they will take what they have heard and put it into action. Importantly, decision makers cannot go at it alone. The question they must ask is how can we engage adolescents and young people as co-owners and decision makers in their own right? “We have been speaking for a while. What we need now is to hear from decision makers on how they will translate what they have heard from us into action,” said 17-year-old Yande Banda, an education and girls and women’s rights activist from AGIP’s adolescent and youth network.

The young people we spoke to expressed optimism heading into Paris. As drivers of change, their calls to action here and in the Young Feminist Manifesto provide us with a way forward to ensuring this can be a transformative moment to accelerate progress.

“Beyond bold commitments, I aspire for tangible change, meaningful youth engagement, and an action-based approach. GEF Paris must aim to be an even more inclusive and diverse platform giving more opportunity to young advocates to co-create a new normal rather than going back to the old normal before the pandemic,” said Kalpa. “GEF must not be a standalone event but rather the beginning.”

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