Young activists have been swapping inspiring stories at a UN-supported youth summit on Thursday in Geneva about how they’ve driven positive change for their communities and the environment – and how everyone can do the same.
In her address to the summit, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, commended young activists everywhere for “challenging discrimination, injustice and inequalities… pushing the world forward”.
But their campaigning work often came at a cost, Ms. Bachelet cautioned, noting how in many countries, young people “face attacks, intimidation and harassment”.
Young activists often have fewer means to protect themselves and they are also disproportionately targeted by violence during peaceful assemblies, the High Commissioner explained.
To tackle this problem, Ms. Bachelet noted that her Office is co-leading UN-wide efforts to develop guidance for the protection of environmental human rights defenders – including youth.
Speaking at the Young Activists Summit, an event supported by UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), six invitees included 22-year-old coral reef restorer, Titouan Bernicot and 15-year-old anti-cyberbullying app inventor, Gitanjali Rao.
"What I know is that young people have less fear. It's not reckless to be fearless"— Young Activists Summit (@ActivistsSummit) November 18, 2021
🙏Thank you to our special guest Angelina Jolie for inspiring all of us!
📙Her book "Know Your Rights and Claim Them: A Guide for Youth" helps youth learn about their rights and speak up! #YAS21 pic.twitter.com/eKGuEbLyTW
Miss Rao, who is from the US and also TIME Magazine’s first Kid Of The Year, told the audience in the Swiss city and online that her new smartphone app, which is called Kindly, was designed to make bullies reconsider sending or revising potentially hurtful messages online.
The app is in final testing and could be available in a matter of weeks.
‘Spellcheck of bullying’
“Using machine-learning algorithms, it basically identifies phrases or words that could be considered bullying when someone’s texting, when someone’s sending an email, even on social media”, Miss Rao explained.
“It’s almost like the spellcheck of bullying; it says, ‘This might not be the right thing to say’, but it gives you the chance if you want to send it or not. I read an article that says it only takes seven seconds for a teenager to reevaluate what they’re sending - and we’re going to give them that seven seconds through Kindly”.
Describing innovation as “a part of our daily lives”, Miss Rao maintained that constructive creativity was needed to solve the many unforeseen challenges that are holding back sustainable development and respect for people’s rights and wellbeing, such as climate change and digital harassment.
“Really what I’m hoping to do is make innovation a necessity; it is a necessity and each and every one of us should be involved…I think it’s time we made that change, adapt to technology and adapt to the environment around us, because at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to help our future the most.”
Twenty-two-year-old coral reef restorer Titouan Bernicot explained how he found his mission at age 16, after seeing marine life “disappearing before my eyes” while swimming in French Polynesia.
After convincing his parents that he needed to save the reefs, the 18-year-old took a step back from school and turned his bedroom into an office to set up Coral Gardners, a global movement to protect the oceans.
Although some coral biodiversity will be lost to bleaching, the young campaigner insisted that it is quite straightforward to “grow” coral branches.
He aims to collect so-called “super corals” that are more resistant to climate change and to date, more than 15,000 corals have been replanted in Moorea, French Polynesia.
Stacy Dina Adhiambo Owino from Kenya explained how she and her friends, The Restorers, created an iCut app to prevent female genital mutilation.
Despite it being illegal in Kenya, the traditional practice continues as a rite of passage to adulthood before girls turn 15, said 21-year-old Miss Owino.
She explained that long-established gender norms and patriarchal attitudes continued to drive the practice, while poverty remains a key factor as some families cannot hope to marry their daughters or receive a dowry unless they are cut.
“Because tradition is something that’s difficult to broach and reproach, given that you’re young and women and it’s such a disadvantage, I remember when we were coming up with the application and we had a man come to my high school and tell our principal, ‘Tell these girls to stop, they don’t understand what they are trying to intervene on’”.
“But then you remember your ‘why’, why are you doing this, and that is what has kept us and fuelled us to keep fighting zero mutilation…these are young girls who need to be protected”.
Future of farming
Louise Mabulo created a sustainable agriculture initiative in her native Philippines, called The Cacao Project
“The Young Activists Summit has been extremely supportive in organizing bilateral meetings and workshops as well that help train us on how to further develop our project in a way that’s more meaningful”, she said.
“I know that all of the things that I’ve learned here I can take back, including networks and opportunities, that will benefit hundreds of farmers in my hometown”.
The project involves providing farmers with cacao plant seedlings and teaching them how to sustainably produce cacao. To date it has planted 85,000 trees covering 85 hectares, and trained over 200 farmers.
For Lual Mayen, a refugee from South Sudan who has created a video game to raise awareness of what it is like to flee violence, the Summit allowed him to connect with the home of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
His message was that refugees can contribute to the world economy.
“People do not have to look at them in a way that they are part of the burden. We can become who we are, we can become entrepreneurs, we can become developers, we can make the world a better place.”
The activists even got a special message from Hollywood when Angelina Jolie appeared with her own words of encouragement.
“This is where your strength lies, find each other, grow together, hold on to what you know to be true and right and insist on solutions”, she said.
“And then, I believe your generation may really be able to pull our world back from the brink and set us on a better path. We’re listening, so speak up, and speak loudly”.
Environment, ‘best thing’
For 16-year-old Peruvian Jose Quisocala, the big win from the Summit was talking about the environment, including his project Green Bank, which helps students save money and recycle.
“The best thing about the summit is that it shows that what I am doing is important, that means a lot. And it means more people in the world get a chance to learn about what I do”.