UN shines spotlight on children’s issues

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Ahead of the International Children’s Day, the United Nations convened a Youth Dialogue this week with a focus on listening, rather than prescribing, what’s best to younger generations around the world. Among the focus areas of the event was access to quality education and identifying the risks of radicalization and extremism that often starts at an early age.

The event brought in athletes and former refugees turned activists in the hopes of inspiring the generation of tomorrow.

This is a platform to put young people at the centre of the UN’s agenda. With messages of inclusivity for a generation that has not always felt welcome at the decision-making table, at least according to the President of the General Assembly Miroslav Lajcak.

“They still feel that they are excluded from decisions that are affecting their lives; that they are not invited to the table where they’re supposed to be and too often they have the feeling that when they speak no one is listening. I’m not naïve. I know we’re not going to change it with this one event, but I hope there will be many more.”

With a strong focus on access to quality education – with some 263 million children and youth out of school – a former refugee turned model, DJ actor and social activist, is hoping her project will change that in her native South Sudan.

Mari Malek, who fled that country when she was just 18, says, “My mother’s goal was for us, her daughters, to get better education and a better life and an opportunity for us to come back, and never forget where we come from, so that we can be the change in our country and to bring enlightenment and hope to all the people we have left back home and to the young girls who are fighting for their rights until today.”

Stand for Education – a non-profit she started in New York years later – is dedicated to providing education resources for children in a country where almost 80% of the population cannot read or write.

“I got discovered to model, and I said I must use this time to make a change, to speak on behalf of my sisters and brothers back home. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. 64% of South Sudan are women. 50% are under the age of 18-years-old. 80% of South Sudan is unable to read or write. Now, you do the math. What needs to be done. Education means life. It means opportunity; it means a moment of enlightenment, so I was inspired to create the non-profit, Stand for Education, where we are dedicated to empower underprivileged children and women and bring them hope and opportunity and life.”

And if more inspiration was key, then that task fell to Tongan Taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua – the buff and well oiled flag-bearer for his country at both the Summer and Winter Olympics in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

“Your ability to become a superhero depends on your ability to deal with failure and pain. You will fail you way to success; you will fail your way to becoming a superhero. When you account for this, it will take away the pain. 20 years, that’s how long I struggled. I walked out of the Olympic opening ceremony and 200 million people googled ‘where is Tonga?’ They said what (does) it feel like to be an overnight success? I said I was not an overnight success, I was 20 years of pain. The reason I’m here at the UN, sounds really cool to me, is because I was able to move through the pain.”

In a world where increasingly children and young people need to be taught how to think, but not necessarily what to think – so that more dialogue and less conflict creates the space for that generation to flourish.