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‘Speak so the one promising leader who is willing to listen can hear’

Shadi Rouhshahbaz shared her views on the potential of youth leadership and her aspirations to be a change leader in the United Nations.

Shadi Rouhshahbaz (she/her) is a Peace and Security Programme Analyst and Young Woman Leader Fellow at UN Women with a background in International Development (Migration and Mediation) and Post-colonial literature, She works at the intersections of the Youth, Peace and Security as well as the Women, Peace and Security agenda with an interest in intergenerational feminist leadership. Shadi is founder of the Iranian Peace Mentors and is inspired by making the impossible possible – and done.

The responses in this piece are written in Shadi Rouhshahbaz’s personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.


Tell us more about where you are working and what you are doing now?

Currently I am working as a peace and security program analyst at United Nations Women headquarters [and] also have a number of volunteer assignments with the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY). I serve as the coordinator of The Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) Research Network and the regional coordinator for the MENA region. I’m also a freelance consultant and researcher on youth peace and security (YPS) and women peace and security (WPS) issues. During my education in Post-colonial and English literature, I was introduced to gender studies, feminist literature and post-colonial literature. My first thesis focused on Apartheid literature in South Africa and I studied how peace, conflict and violence transformed into one another in the narratives of post-colonial literature. I continued to take those learnings into my experiences as an intern with the United Nations Information Centre and UNICEF in Iran as well as further into my second master’s degree in international development with a focus on migration and mediation.

What have been the main academic and professional experiences that motivated you to join the UN?

I come from the so-called ‘exotic’ part of the world. A woman from the Global South, Iranian and very misunderstood. My experiences from Iran and years of living abroad have made me realise how development and peace should be available to everyone. I wanted to make that happen and was always interested in making the world, as cliche as it seems, a better place for young people, especially for women, like myself. There are many women who are extremely talented and who have lived their lives without much privilege and with too many obstacles to reach the rest of the world. This disconnect mainly exists because of a lack of opportunities at our academic and educational institutions and is interwoven with a number of financial and banking challenges, sanctions and visa restrictions for our citizens. Having experienced this, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in International Development with a focus on migration and mediation in Italy, France and Tunisia.

In parallel, I started my own organisation called Peace Mentors in 2018 in Iran where we provide training for young women peacebuilders, youth from underprivileged backgrounds, and refugees in areas of peace and non-violent communication. Additionally, my experience within the civil society, and later within various UN structures and working groups motivated me to pursue a career within the UN. It came to my attention that there is a divide between institutions and young people so I wanted to bridge that gap. I’m trying to take part in that effort and bringing my own experiences of a young Iranian woman from the civil society into the UN system.

International Youth Day (IYD) is coming up in August and in 1945 the United Nations promised to save ‘succeeding generations’ from the scourge of future wars. Similarly, it’s promises today speaks about dealing with the complex threats of environmental degradation, climate change and conflicts. Is the UN listening to young people and how does that translate to policy work and if you were to be in a position of power tomorrow, what would you do?

 The UN listens to young people, and they have now had at least solid five years of ‘listening’ thanks to the first resolution on youth, peace and security, Resolution 2250 (2015). This ground-breaking resolution was followed by two other resolutions, numerous fellowship programs and initiatives within the UN for young people. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program now has a youth category. When I wanted to volunteer at 22, the minimum age for a UNV was 25. This made me feel really upset, so I waited for my opportunity and now my current contract modality is as a youth UNV.

I believe that young people are now being heard within the UN system. Sometimes their voices are translated into policies. This is highly dependent on who is listening and who is in the position of power. For example, the former executive director at UN Women used her position and her influence to open up the organisation to young people from the Global South with the fellowship program Young Women Leaders of which I am part of. This is an example where listening to the needs of young people translated into policy work. Getting into the program required a lot of work. I ended up going to the headquarters in New York on a three-month single entry G4 visa because I’m Iranian and [to extend it meant I]was unable to exit the country during my contract time because renewal of the visa within the United States of America took a very long time and renewal outside would be on my own expenses. This is when I came to realise I am the only Iranian in my agency, and one of very few in the broader UN system. Because of this, the system did [not] have any experience on how to overcome the challenges and obstacles I was facing. It is only now that I can speak of this experience as a young woman from the Global South, a rare occurrence in the UN system, but nevertheless an occurrence.

There are many leaders who do listen to us. The listening, however, sometimes only happens in a vacuum, they take our feedback and they say they will take it into consideration. I know that this does not happen due to disdain or hate for young people, but due to a number of other factors. I think this is slowly changing as more young people, or let’s say, less old people, join the UN system. The experiences among different generations joining the UN vary, it’s one thing when you’re 30, another when you’re 40, and something completely different thing when you’re 60 years old.

I feel there are two mentalities within the UN system, the first is ‘I suffered, so you should suffer too’, and the other one is ‘I suffered, so I don’t want you to suffer’. Compassionate and forward-looking leaders at the UN level often have the second mentality. For them, listening and understanding translates into policy and then and into action.

So, if I were to be in a position of power tomorrow or today, I would actually think about the sufferings and challenges that I have been faced with. Instead of organising all of these extravagant exercises, roundtables and building up the expectations. I would be transparent with what kind of roadblocks we hit in policy work, recruitment, or programming and what concrete steps can be taken to overcome them together with youth. Feminism and intergenerational leadership are the ways that pave the future of a just and thriving society – one that leaves no one behind.

The theme of the 2022 IYD is inter-generational solidarity, notably ageism and builds on the momentum from two side events organised by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and partners that will be on Ageism in health and employment and Ageism in politics on the margins of the 60th Commission for Social Development and the 11th edition of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum.

In your timely contribution to the report The Art of leadership at the UN, ‘From youth inclusion to intergenerational feminist leadership’, you speak up about the challenges and opportunities that come up in generationally diverse teams. Could you please reflect on how ageism manifest itself in your line of work and how does your work at the UN contribute to promoting intergenerational solidarity?

Ageism can manifest itself in both a positive and a negative way. I come from a culture where we respect our elders and the experiences that they bring to the table, the workplace, and to the family. Sometimes this is done at the expense of innovation. These are situations where we [as youth] feel that our ideas are useless or are not being heard, because of someone else’s wealth of past experience. I also think that sometimes our ideas should be shared, tested and that we should let them fail. We should learn from that. Every couple of years, there is a new transformative agenda coming out, including new policies and consultations, so why not pursue our innovative ideas in those spaces?

Ageism also manifests itself in mistrust. For instance, if you wish to join the international development sector, the UN or any other institution, you need to have master’s degree and a number of years of volunteer and work experience. I tell my friends who are in the medical field that they have it easier because they study and train for a long time, and then they become doctors. For us in the international development field this path never ends and we sometimes end up volunteering for years. Leadership positions are off limits to us since there’s always someone out there who’s twice our age and who’s seen it and done it all. Our lived experiences are often invalidated by someone whose first language is English or has credentials from prestigious universities.

The Secretary-General’s report on YPS optimistically reports growing recognition of young people’s essential role in peace and security. Since an institution is conducting this report, I would say that this is a perfect example of ageism because the voices of youth get lost. This is where shadow reports are very helpful. For instance, I am involved in the work  of the Journal on Youth, Peace and Security, where we offer spaces for young peacebuilders from diverse backgrounds to share their lived experiences until institutions are ready to embrace those experiences.

If you have three messages to young people, what would they be?

As a young person, you open your eyes, and you realise that the world is on fire. This is not the world we choose to live in. We have to find a way to work together and try to prevent and decrease the damages and prevent further disasters. The first message to my peers is to listen more than you talk and to try to really genuinely connect and emphasise collaboration in your interactions. When participating in an event, make sure that your talking points, while critical, also bring a space for dialogue and collaboration and educate yourself on other perspectives and intersectional dimensions. I always start my conversations by listening and empathising.

The second advice is ‘don’t give up, but take paced breaks’. It’s important not to let yourself burn out. By burning out you are basically giving up on all your values and on all of the things that you want to change. The mental health of young people working in the third sector is jeopardised and unfortunately, it is getting progressively worse. I see many of my colleagues, including myself, reaching a point where our physical and mental health are lost in between all the work that we’re doing. Pace yourself and the work that you’re doing, because that’s how it can be done sustainably in a world that is not going to really wait for us to recover or nurture the process.

Finally, aim for structural change and do not give up because that kind of change takes years if not decades. In many cases we ‘treat the symptoms’ and not the ‘root causes’ of our marginalised position as youth. This applies to many other dimensions of the challenges that we work on. While this remains an important aspect for grassroots organisations and communities, we need to work our way into the structural level. This might also include working with much older people who tend to make us younger people very uncomfortable. Sometimes, there may be a pleasant surprise of being met by leaders who are fierce advocates for intergenerational advocates! Although we might feel we are not heard or seen all the time, we need to be present and create access to different spaces that should not be taken away from us. It’s in these places we might come across that one promising leader who is willing to listen.

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Marijana Markotić By Marijana Markotić

Marijana Markotić is a Programme Officer in the Foundation’s Leadership programme which focuses on strengthening the UN leadership systems and practice in and across the UN Secretariat, agencies, funds and programmes to reinforce the relevance of the International Civil service. Her main interest is in the conflict-climate nexus, disaster risk reduction (DRR), disaster relief and rebel governance. Markotić has nearly 10 years’ experience working with peace and development issues, both in government, civil society and with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Western Balkans and South and Central Asia. As part of her masters in Peace and Conflict at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, Markotić worked at the Center for Disaster Management Studies in Nepal. She obtained her first masters in Disaster Risk Reduction Studies from the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and is an ITDM alumna as well as Rotary Peace Fellow.