I found my voice through volunteering at a very young age.
I was seven years old when I first witnessed the intergenerational effects of poverty—children and their families working long hours in dangerous conditions and rummaging through garbage for food. I felt compelled to make a difference, but I also felt limited in my capacity to give back. So, I started spending several hours each month volunteering at local youth-focused organizations, eager to learn, build confidence and understand how best to support under-resourced youth. Over time, I began to realize that if children younger than myself could face the brutal nature of the circumstances that many are born into, the least I could do is advocate for them. I was doing a disservice to myself and to countless children in need by focusing on the resources that I did not have instead of leveraging those that I did—my time, energy and voice—to raise awareness for the plight of children.
Advocacy completely changed the trajectory of my life. Where I was once the quietest kid in any room, I was now approaching situations with an unwavering curiosity to learn and a new found confidence to express what I had to say. By the tenth grade, I founded my own children’s charity and was teaching hundreds of children about their rights. This work always felt so central to who I am as a person—so much so, that when people would ask me what I wanted to do when I was older, I would respond “I want to help people.” It was all I knew for certain. It has been a common thread throughout my entire life. It is what led me to UNICEF.
I learned about UNICEF around the time that I discovered the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and I was completely enthralled by the organization’s ability to do good for children. As I pursued a Master’s degree in Public Policy, I found myself tailoring every assignment to address a different child rights issue and drawing on UNICEF programmes and policies as concrete examples. I wanted to be a part of the movement working with children to build a better world for every child. I wanted to be surrounded by other people who felt as passionately about children’s rights as I did.
A warm welcome to East Asia
I joined the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO) as an Adolescent Development and Participation (ADAP) intern in August of this year. From day one, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. I can’t quite describe the feeling of being so physically distanced from everything I knew and yet feeling so at home. The Adolescent Development and Participation team welcomed me with open arms and entrusted me with fascinating and challenging projects, enabling me to apply my policy background and a creative lens to each task.
Throughout my time here, I collaborated with many individuals and sections across the organization and worked on several important deliverables like kickstarting knowledge management efforts, co-leading the development of a Children’s Call to Action for the first annual ASEAN-ICT Forum on Child Protection Online and mapping regional youth contacts to provide more opportunities to more young people across the region to name a few—one of the most rewarding experiences was launching the Regional Young People’s Action Team (YPAT).
Launching the Young People’s Action Team
The YPAT is the regional office’s first ever body of young leaders established to support systematic meaningful engagement of young people at the regional level in a way that both draws on and contributes to country-level youth networks. With a one-year commitment to contribute to and collaborate with UNICEF, members have the unique opportunity to support the development of programmes and policies that affect the lives of children, while also strengthening their own advocacy and leadership skills as well as future skills for work. Through partnerships with country offices (COs), members work to cascade information through their country-level and regional networks to foster knowledge sharing and capacity building at all levels. Each quarter, the team selects 3 members to serve as youth co-chairs who support more closely with meeting development, organization and facilitation. This opportunity helps to ensure that meetings are as relevant as possible to the needs and interests of the group, while also encouraging members to step outside of their comfort zone and have their voices heard.
Created through the thought leadership of various UNICEF focal points and in consultation with young people across the region, the YPAT was officially launched during my time at UNICEF. From recruiting candidates and organizing social media call outs, to tapping into regional youth networks and maintaining constant communication with UNICEF Country Offices (COs), I gained the incredible experience of leading an initiative at this scale. The YPAT acts as a meaningful model of youth participation, encourages the movement away from surface-level consultations towards meaningful collaborative participation and offers more transparent and youth-led processes for engagement. I am optimistic that all levels of the regional office will continue to tap into this resource to ensure that their programming is truly representative of the needs of those that it seeks to serve. As one YPAT member eloquently stated in a recent meeting,
“I may not have traditional school or work experience, but my opinions still matter. I am learning from my activism and I am leading in my community every day.”
The YPAT is a constant reminder to EAPRO, COs and government partners that irrespective of any other factors, young people must be at the centre of all decisions and programming that affect their lives.
A group that reflects the diversity of the region
This year, the first cohort of the YPAT consists of 37 members between the ages of 12-24 from 12 countries across the East Asia and Pacific region. This inspiring group of young leaders brings with them a range of experiences and interest in a variety of thematic areas including mental health & well-being, access to quality education & skills for work, climate action & environmental sustainability, young people’s right to safety & protection (online and offline) and civic engagement & participation.
YPAT members are steadfast advocates for the very issues that they have experienced in their own lives. They are climate defenders because they have witnessed floods damage their family’s homes and farms and want to ensure that those that are most affected by the climate crisis have their voices heard at global conferences like COP27. They fight for refugee rights because they know what it’s like when harsh conflict forces hundreds to flee their homeland, and they want to improve the situation for other children. They are advocates for people with disabilities because they have experienced discrimination in society and yet, are striving to create a more accessible world. They are fearlessly working to protect children from online abuse and exploitation by calling on the private sector and governments for more accountability, transparency and safety mechanisms. They are champions for equitable health care and access, risking judgement to combat prevailing stigmas surrounding mental illness and HIV/AIDs.
It has been the greatest privilege of my life to work alongside the first cohort of YPAT members. Their passion for the causes they care about, empathy towards each other, willingness to learn and take risks and relentless advocacy inspires me. And this is exactly what the world needs right now: young people taking charge and leading change, backed by organizations like UNICEF with the capacity and responsibility to protect, uplift and empower them. I hope this experience is as meaningful for each member as it has been—and will continue to be—for the UNICEF EAPRO team. I hope it grants them the freedom to never feel confined in what they want to do or who they want to be. I hope it helps them find their voice and use it, too.
Aiza Abid was a Adolescent Development Intern at UNICEF EAPRO