The revolution is here.
It was sparked by COVID-19, but for a few years now, young people of every color and background have taken to the streets to protest unjust systems — and we’re beginning to see that things will never be the same. A global shift is happening. And young people are leading that shift. They see systems for what they are: corrupt and broken.
COVID-19 exposed the deepest cracks in our social, political, and economic systems. In Kenya and India, the poor face violent suppression in their efforts to access basic needs with some shred of dignity. In South America, weak health care systems and high urban populations have led to a rapid surge in cases, exacerbating underlying problems.
A clear symbol of the brokenness and inequality of systems was amplified by the killing of George Floyd in the US, giving new voice to long-building frustration around the world. Over 18 other countries joined the protests against racism with the US. The European Parliament supported the protests by adopting a resolution on anti-racism, and police departments around the US have taken first steps to addressing systemic problems. Young people march onward together, refusing to accept anything less than large scale structural change.
The COVID-19 pandemic comes after four decades in which conflict trends have shifted around the world. The transnational nature of this pandemic makes situations in conflict-affected countries more fragile. Pandemics and wars alike provide opportunities to catalyze major change. With global violence at a 30-year high and a global pandemic shaking life as we know it, we must develop new transnational solutions to tackle major transnational problems.
The pandemic and protests are a defining moment for the world’s 1.85 billion young people. For the first time, this disparate group is joined by collective experiences that have the potential to drive collective responses across all types of social divides.
Although they are facing enormous challenges, young people are showing up with innovative means to mitigate the effects of this virus, organizing their own social safety networks to help in hard-to-reach places, while continuing to fight for justice and peace. Young people often have access, knowledge, and credibility in spaces where formal actors, like governments, do not. The world is changing in so many ways — and young people have the power to transform our broken systems of conflict prevention for the better.
At the dawn of this new era, youth have a unique opportunity to pick up the broken pieces, and build a better world.
IMAGINE A WORLD WITH LESS VIOLENCE
On March 23, UN Secretary General (SG) António Guterres called for a global ceasefire, reiterating the importance of pooling our resources and efforts against COVID-19. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” Guterres said in March. However, violence has not ceased and many have not heeded this call. As the ceasefire demonstrates, we have a bold, historical chance to end wars. But we need young people to lead the way.
Despite the universal hardship of the coronavirus, the poor and marginalized are disproportionately affected — especially in fragile countries, where the majority of citizens are young people.
Young people have long been on the forefront of building peace and preventing conflict. In youthful states like Afghanistan or South Sudan, young people make up nearly two-thirds of the population and bear the brunt of war. In countries like the US, youth suffer from racial injustice and systemic violence. Worldwide, violence is one of the leading causes of death for persons aged 15-44. Amidst the pandemic, youth must continue to monitor trends in conflict and risks of violence in their communities, while advocating for peace, as they did in West Africa during the Ebola crisis.
Religion for Peace’s Global Interfaith Youth Network recently put out a call for the world to heed the SG’s call for a global ceasefire, and young people around the world are mobilizing for racial justice and providing robust solutions to end systemic violence.
Youth should seize this momentum as an opportunity to transform the way we mitigate, prevent, and resolve violent conflict.
IMAGINE A WORLD WITH MORE COMPASSION
Despite the universal hardship of the coronavirus, the poor and marginalized are disproportionately affected — especially in fragile countries, where the majority of citizens are young people. Many of them face major economic hardship, along with increasing structural and psychological exclusion from political, educational, cultural, digital, and physical spaces.
Globally, 76.7% of youth are in the informal economy, experiencing the brunt of COVID’s economic effects, and in some countries, youth suffer from violent quarantine enforcement by security forces. In India, where over 80% of people are in the informal sector, the headlines read: “A lockdown is an order to starve.”
Responses to the pandemic frequently lack basic compassion, furthering cycles of systemic violence and exclusion. While the poor and marginalized are pushed aside and forgotten, youth are often the ones to remember them and serve as critical bridge-builders between communities and institutions within polarized situations, bringing vulnerable voices to the forefront, meeting their basic needs, and prioritizing justice.
It is time to stop bullets and band-aid solutions that prolong war and violence and embrace a more authentic approach to prevention. This pandemic offers youth an opportunity to transform the violence of systemic exclusion and violence that perpetuate cycles of inequity.
IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE YOUTH ARE HEARD
For youth activism, collective action often centers on compassion — prioritizing the climate, human rights, and accessible democracies and economic systems. Youth are currently offering a robust and effective solution to global problems, based on compassion and ‘people first’ principles, ensuring that systems and authorities are not responding to just greed and power.
While the current pandemic has put a halt to most physical activity, technology offers a powerful avenue for organizing. Movements have taken up many new forms of collective action to adapt to this new digital life, and youth are leading this shift.
Despite their activism and critical role as informal actors, however, youth are underrepresented in formal peace and political processes. Globally, only 2.2% of Parliamentarians are under the age of 30, confirming that youth are overwhelmingly underrepresented in governance.
Having a seat at the table, partnering with institutions, and influencing the highest levels of decision-making are essential for youth to develop more effective systems of conflict prevention and global equity. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, celebrated for her youthful leadership in managing the pandemic with grace, released a 2019 national budget known informally as a “well-being budget.” Such focus on the well-being of people rather than the traditional bottom line can inspire young people and offers a trend to follow.
Youth must imagine what expanding their efforts and leadership will look like to effectively shift policies both outside and within the system.
Now is the time to imagine a world anew. We can choose to go back to the status quo, or we can use this moment to reinvent the world, prioritize compassion, and rebuild our societies.
Youth have been advocating to prevent violence and create more equitable systems for many decades. As governments around the world struggle to unite against the common threat of COVID-19, there is a critical opportunity for youth to step in the gap as mediators, bridge-builders, and caregivers for their peers and communities.
Never has the folly of war and inequity been more stark, and the potential for transformative youth action to create a more peaceful and equitable world more promising.
Saji Prelis is the Director of Children and Youth Programs at Search for Common Ground and co-chair, Global Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security. Mena Ayazi is the Youth, Peace and Security Advisor at Search for Common Ground.