Girls banging the drum for peace

A conversation between two feminists about being young and advocating for youth engagement in peacebuilding.


Sewit Haileselassie Tadesse from Ethiopia and Sophia Pierre-Antoine from Haiti got a chance to connect during the Global Consultations for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security co-organised by the Foundation in New York in November 2017. Here are their reflections on the experience and what it means to be a young feminist leader in the peace and security sector.

How do you feel about the term “youth”?

SEWIT: I have never wanted to be young. I have loathed being referred to as young for as long as I can remember. Why would I want to be young? Coming from a hierarchical culture, I live in a society where I am excluded from other women because of my age and from my male peers because of my gender. To me, being a member of that obscure demographic group “youth” is just one more aspect of my identity where I am marginalised. My desire has always been to become an adult with a seat table at the table as fast as possible!

SOPHIA: My experience is the opposite. I love being a young woman, a “youth”. I love the incredible energy I feel when I am surrounded by other youth activists. Thanks to my past work in international program management and advocacy, I have been surrounded by amazing young people from around the world who, at their very young age, do incredible work that brings tangible change to their communities. We are the ones on the ground connected to the reality, the real issues. This makes me feel pride at the “youth” label.

SEWIT: I haven’t felt the same sort of empowerment. Watching countless public dialogues on youth in my home country with no young women in speaking roles, I have realised there is little space for me in decision making. To me youth has always symbolised  a gang of young men, different from me, filled with boundless energy or the hint of danger, who are always invited to be a part of public discourse to placate some riot or demand. In contrast, as a young woman I have never felt sufficiently represented by decision-makers and have certainly never been given the opportunity to articulate my misgivings.

SOPHIA: I do see where you are coming from Sewit. Being a young person, particularly a young person of many marginalised identities, can automatically shut me out of certain decision-making processes or leadership roles. It’s a discrimination, an injustice that we experience far too often. This is why we need more meaningful and inclusive support and participation of diverse youth from marginalised communities, particularly for young women or trans youth who have disabilities, are part of the LGBTIQ community, are rural, indigenous, and/or from racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.

What role can young women play in peacebuilding?

SEWIT: The discussions should not be about what role young women should play but rather what role they are already playing. The focus has been centered on young men, automatically depicted as destructive forces to the status quo. In turn, youth peace and security policies are streamlined to inevitably focus on these young men, automatically overlooking the gender agenda and I see firsthand evidence of that within my context right now. The Progress Study on Youth rocks the foundation on what we think about youth, looking at gender as not only something to be mainstreamed into programs and policies, but rather as a central agenda in the Youth Peace and Security discourse.

SOPHIA: Absolutely!  Often when people speak of peace and security they think of men in the military, boy soldiers, or high level male peace negotiators. When they think of women and girls they see only victims. Even initiatives working on the Women, Peace, and Security agenda (UNSC Resolution 1325) which focuses on women sometimes excludes young women and girls’ participation. But in reality, young people, young girls, are driving the positive change needed in their communities.

This is why UNSC Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security as well as its Progress Study are a breath of fresh air. It carves a space for young women to not only be recognised for all their hard work, but to also learn from each other, share knowledge and methodologies, and grow. If used correctly, it could actually make sure that youth, particularly young women, who are diverse and reflect different realities and experiences, are part of project design, implementation, evaluation, and that their own initiatives are elevated to receive support and funding.

How have you been active in the Progress Study?

SOPHIA: I joined over 60 participants and was one of two representatives from Haiti at the Latin American and Caribbean Consultations. It was one of the most challenging, honest and inspiring activities I have ever participated in. Discussing the topic of peace and security is not easy, but we felt this was a relatively safe space and each of us – from day one – was open to sharing our experiences. As a result, behind each of our recommendations are multiple testimonies of pain, loss, dissolution, but also stories of hope and success.

Sewit and Sophia at the validation consultation in NYCA few months later I participated in the validation consultation with around 20 youth from different regions. We only had two days to reflect on findings in a strategic way, and I spent the whole time banging my gender and diversity drum. I think this is why I was able to make awesome connections with like-minded participants like you Sewit. It’s always beautiful to see feminists from around the world come together!

The following month I was in Geneva when the Lead Author Graeme Simpson and Cecile Mazzacurati from the Secretariat presented the recommendations they had gathered over the past year from young people all over the world to UN agencies, International Organizations, and NGOs. The work was well received and launched interesting debates and conversations, of course, from vastly different perspectives. Now I’m curious to see how these organisations will work to implement the recommendations of the Progress Study once it is published.

SEWIT: I was invited to take part in the regional consultation for East and Southern Africa that took place in Johannesburg last year and then again in the validation consultation in New York in November. In both instances, I felt I was among the most diverse, intelligent and frankly impressive group of young people I have ever encountered. While experiences varied considerably, we were able to come together and form an understanding that while context matters, there is always something enriching about learning from someone very different than you.

While my ‘Feminist banner’ was more or less provocative for many, I was able to connect with so many like-minded people from all over the world. We were able to deepen understanding of our work and what it means to be a young peacebuilder during both consultations. The methods used ensured that each voice is heard and each experience articulated, and I am looking forward to seeing this reflected in the report.

How can young people, governments, UN agencies, and NGOs use the Progress Study?

SOPHIA: It’s so inspirational! It should inspire! Here you have a document capturing the amazing work that young people are doing globally. You also have specific recommendations on how to work with young people, who, whether they know it are not, due to their lived realities, are already incredibly knowledgeable in peace and security. It can be used as an advocacy tool, an implementation tool, be creative! I’m really hoping that it will give the extra push for UN agencies, international organisations, NGOs, and governments to acknowledge the incredible diversity of young people and the amazing work that they are currently doing and that they can do. It is critical that young women in all their diversity are included in all peace and security processes.

A recurring topic during the consultations in which I participated was the importance of changing the narrative. The Progress Study highlights the fact that young people are not only radicalised violent extremists or victims caught in the crossfire. This happens and should be acknowledged and a key programme of action, but it’s not the only narrative. Young women, men, and trans youth are at the forefront of social movements working for sustainable peace and justice. While facing discriminations and disadvantages, every single day young people knowingly risk their safety to defend their causes and make their communities safer and healthier. We should be recognised as such and given the proper protection, funding, tools and support.

SEWIT: Exactly. I think that the Progress Study’s fabulously non traditional and inclusive approach has enabled the authentic voices of young people to shine through. It has gone beyond ‘mainstreaming’ gender and included it into every facet of the analysis in the report. It examines not just the role that young women play as peacebuilders, a crucial but overlooked component in peace and security, but the diversity in youth, exploring conceptions of masculinity and its role in peacebuilding. This inclusive approach has, I believe, created a road map for further studies, analysis and program design for similar concepts concerning young people. It sends governments, activists, policy makers a clear message: young people, as diverse a demographic as they are, with all their varied agendas, contexts and histories, are agents of change and allies in the peacebuilding process.