During COP26 in 2021, I remember seeing photos of thousands of youth climate activists outside the conference in Glasgow. Seeing young people like me mobilise to protect our planet was astonishing and inspired me. I was born in Maharashtra, the second most populous state in India, with a population of 118 million people. The state of Maharashtra is also one of India's most vulnerable to extreme climate events. Since childhood, I have witnessed unseasonal rainfalls, heatwaves, flash floods, droughts, and cyclones. Unfortunately, in my country and globally, children and youth are the most impacted by climate shocks while contributing the least to climate change. And half of India's population is under 25. That's 650 million youth voices. So the potential for youth climate engagement in India is immense.
I remember receiving an offer letter from UNICEF to be one of 11 global youth climate advocates as part of UNICEF's Youth Engagement for Climate Change project launched by the UNICEF Adolescent Development Programme in New York. It was one of the best moments of my career. My parents were elated and proud. I was also pleased to be able to work towards making the state in which I was born a better place. The project was launched across ten countries. It aimed to provide a framework for youth climate engagement and serve as a platform for young people to share their views and opinions directly with decision-makers. Young people like me also have much to contribute to UNICEF's climate education mandate. Through this opportunity, I gained access to senior UNICEF advisors and a platform that granted me access to crucial policymakers from my state and throughout India.
Young people from rural areas often have valuable grassroots and ancestral knowledge, but they often need a network and technical know-how to support their green initiatives. For this reason, developing the necessary resources and tools to nurture, support and amplify climate youth engagement became crucial to my work. I worked with UNICEF to co-create the Maha Youth for Climate Action (MYCA) with Yusuf Kabir, the UNICEF Mumbai DRR Focal point and a WASH-Climate Specialist. MYCA was also created in partnership with the Government of India and the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) in 2022. MYCA is a platform for young people aged 15 to 29, especially from rural areas, who seek to develop green skills to gain access to training, resources and better work opportunities in the environment sector.
Through my involvement with MYCA, I have also gained important advocacy and negotiation skills by interacting with policymakers who shared different perspectives. I have also learned from young people who lead by example and who have successfully engaged their community through advocacy work. For example, Lakshman Nanabhau Nagargoje (23) from the Osmanabad district is a social worker whose work and advocacy targeted groundwater recharge in his local community. MYCA is a catalyst of opportunities for youth like Lakshman to promote their climate work throughout Maharashtra.
MYCA's advocacy work inspired India’s input at the Conference of Youth (COY17) and the COP27 Global Youth Statement. Learnings from the MYCA platform also led to a youth engagement and stewardship initiative spanning 700,000 young people who will be engaged in low-touch action and in reporting on water conservation in the next three years. Furthermore, successful MYCA advocacy culminated in integrating climate action and environment lesson plans for 1st and 2nd-grade curriculums covering 65,000 primary schools in Maharashtra. Additionally, to ensure climate education reaches youth across the entire state, UNICEF partnered with the State Government to launch a self-paced online course on climate change, water conservation and other climate-related topics targeting 3 million young people in the next two years.
One of the best practices adopted by the MYCA team, which I am very proud of, is our dedication to providing material written in young people's local language. This simple approach allows us to reach youth from marginalised communities, such as youth in rural areas and poor young people from urban areas. Additionally, we always hold conferences and deliver workshops in the local language.
Although we young people have a clear vision for climate action in Maharashtra, one of the biggest challenges we encounter is transforming our vision into reality. Before, I struggled to understand the government system in my state and India. But after joining the UNICEF Youth Engagement for Climate Change programme, I learned from UNICEF mentors such as Yusuf Kabir (who also helped me with this blog post), Fabio Friscia, and other colleagues how to work with government authorities. As a result, I can now successfully advocate for young people for our voices to be heard at the highest level and to ensure we can protect our environment and resources for future generations.
Priyanka Shendage is a UNICEF Youth Climate Advocate in India.