On May 11, The United Nations, in collaboration with The Body Shop, launched the Be Seen Be Heard Campaign — an initiative that strives to bring about radical change when it comes to integrating young people into public life. The conference was moderated by Teen Vogue Editor-In-Chief Versha Sharma, and esteemed panelists included Jayathma Wickramanayake, who is the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, as well as David Boynton, global CEO of The Body Shop; Gina Martin, youth political activist and author; and Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, which is the organization behind Not Too Young to Run which is an act of parliament that sought to reduce the age limit for running for elective office in Nigeria.
“People might be wondering why young people and why political participation?” says Wickramanayake.
She believes that in order to answer that question, it’s important to take stock of where we are right now in the world. “We are tackling multi-dimensional, multi-faceted challenges all over the world right now. From the impacts of the COVID19 pandemic, to a looming climate crisis, to conflicts among and within countries, this generation of people—particularly this generation of young people—are going through once-in-a-generation challenges.”
Wickramanayake asserts that we cannot find answers to these new challenges with old solutions and with the same people in the room. “This is where I see the biggest potential for young people,” she says. Half of the world’s population today are under the age of 30, so we have such a massive number of young people in the world brimming with energy and enthusiasm looking for ways to contribute and shape the future of our world, she says. “Unfortunately, though, if we look at our parliaments, our congresses, where all of the decisions are made, only 2.6% of the world’s parliamentarians are under the age of 30. The average age of a world leader right now is 62 years.”
Wickramanayake says these statistics speak for themselves. “You can clearly see that there is a systematic and blatant exclusion of young people from making decisions and from participating in formal political processes. Now age and other identities aside, we at the United Nations, also believe that everyone has a right to participate in public affairs,” she emphasizes. “A right to shape their future, shape our lives and shape the world that we live in. We believe that this right has to be extended to young people, and it has to be upheld, it has to be protected, and it has to be promoted.”
In collaboration with The Body Shop and through the Be Seen Be Heard campaign, the UN wants to address the challenges such as the barriers that prevent young people from participating in formal politics. “We also want to create conducive environments and conditions around the world for them to be able to claim the space that they rightfully deserve.” Some of the questions they’re taking on include (via a released report) include:
Is lowering the voting age going to help motivate more young people to participate in politics? Will their engagement be different? Is the minimum age to run for public office having an impact on young people’s interest in participation in politics? How are young people engaged in political parties that are the key actors of formal politics?
“We also look at other ways that young people are politically active beyond the formal political spaces, so, youth councils, youth parliaments, youth-led campaigns, youth activism out on the streets,” says
Wickramanayake. “We are trying to build an evidence-based tool that not only those of us who are running the Be Seen Be Heard campaign can use, but also that any youth activism advocate around the world can use as a tool. We want to help them continue to push activism and to demand a seat at the table.”
The Be Seen Be Heard campaign will continue to run until mid-2025. Check out the campaign website for further information.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.