By Ravi Karkara and Nelly Mecklenburg | 12 August 2016
Currently there is a global youth bulge of some 1.8 billion young people – mostly in developing countries in Africa and Asia. This emerging population makes engaging young people – and especially young women, who are often left out of opportunities for economic, political and civic advancement – as agents for gender equality an international imperative. Achieving gender equality worldwide, as outlined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, is key to unlocking the rest of seventeen SDGs. Poverty elimination, quality education and healthcare, sustainable economies, and a thriving environment will not be possible as long as half the population is unable to fully contribute and participate. Real, substantive investment in the young women and girls of this youth bulge is therefore essential to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Agenda. More specifically, ensuring that these young women and girls can be visible and effective leaders within their communities and societies on SDG implementation demands high impact, sustainable investment in their leadership capacities and opportunities.
UN Women, as the United Nations agency tasked with promoting women’s empowerment and gender equality across the world, has therefore double downed on championing young women’s leadership. In 2015, UN Women launched its first Youth Strategy for Gender Equality, at the heart of which is the LEAPs Framework. The first component of the LEAPs framework, which also highlights the need for economic empowerment, ending all forms of violence against women and girls, and cross-sectional partnerships and participation, is strengthening Leadership for young women. This global strategy will help continue to shape and motivate UN Women advocacy and programming both with UN Member States and on the ground through UN Women country offices.
The priority focus on young women’s leadership is borne, however, from the impact UN Women and partners have seen when young women are empowered to be agents of change. UN Women was established in 2010 and in its relatively short history, it has funded, implemented, and supported programs in all regions of the world that are empowering young women to be economic drivers, rights advocates, and leaders at community, national, and regional levels.
One such program, “Making Women’s Voices and Votes Count,” worked to help transform the numerical presence of local elected women representatives in India into substantive participation, ensuring women- and gender-responsive government. India introduced a quota for women in local governments in 1992 and nearly 1.2 million rural women hold leadership positions across the country. Entrenched patriarchy, however, still limits the capacity and impact of their local decision-making abilities. Programs like “Making Women’s Voices and Votes Count,” funded by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, have been working to change this.
This program developed audio- and video-based technology and communication tools to connect elected women representatives and women’s groups across geographically dispersed areas. It made these tools available at local ICT centers and trained young women to use the new technology and find information on women and citizen’s rights and government entitlements. This program not only empowered marginalized young women with new leadership and technology skills and positions of influence, but it also enabled local women to make successful claims on social and economic entitlements regarding employment, housing, and health, reinforced petitions made by elected women representatives, and helped keep local governments accountable on gender and women’s issues. The program reached over 40,000 rural households and inspired other districts to initiate similar programs.
In 2010, UN Women-Africa inaugurated the Africa Young Women Leadership Program (AYWLP) to increase access for young African women to economic opportunities and decision-making positions at national, regional, and global levels. AYWLP supported emerging women leaders, aged 18-35, through networking, skills development, mentoring, and inter-generational dialogue. This long-term strategy engaged partners in academia, the private sector, governments, and youth organizations to strengthen young women’s leadership and participation across all sectors.
Although Brazil has the Maria da Penha Law against gender-based violence, sexual violence remains a daily occurrence in cities like Rio de Janeiro. One major obstacle – particularly for women living in the poorest districts, favelas – is a lack of information about what resources are available for victims or how to find them. On International Women’s Day 2013, UN Women, alongside UN partner agencies, UNICEF and UN-Habitat, launched an online website and smartphone app in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to help combat sexual violence against women and girls. This app consolidates support services information, including abuse hotline numbers, individuals’ rights, geolocations of the nearest police station and medical facilities, and the responsibilities women’s center where survivors can find psychological, social, and legal support.
As part of this program, UN Women and partners trained young women from marginalized communities to use the website and app, and to teach their peers to identify and address gender-based violence. These women also use smartphones to create interactive maps documenting safety risks for women and girls such as faulty infrastructure, obscured walking routes, and insufficient lighting which are used by local authorities to develop targeted interventions. In addition to helping make their neighborhoods safer, these women are also learning ICT skills and becoming community leaders.
Programs like these demonstrate the multiplier effect that happens when we empower young women as leaders. Governments become more accountable, streets become safer, and technology is shared. If the international community sets young women leadership as a global priority – with targeted funding, education and training opportunities, and policy reforms – we will not only help improve the lives of these young women, their families, and communities, but we will succeed in achieving a more sustainable, fair, and equal world for everyone.
Ravi Karkara is the Co-Chair of WorldWeWant 2030 and Senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary General, UN Women (@ravikarkara)
 Khan, Suhela. Young Women Infomediaris in India. 23 June 2015. Young women trained as infomediaries to run and manage information centers to facilitate realization of women’s entitlements and capacitate elected women representatives with information and establish linkages with their constituencies. UN Women India MCO, New Delhi.
 UN Women, National Committee, United Kingdom. “Supporting international projects”. http://unwomenuk.org/about-un-women-uk-national-committee/projects/. And UN Women. “Mentoring, Networking, Capabilities: African Young Leadership Programme (AYWLP).” Print.
 UN Women. “In Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas, A New Online Tool Tackles Violence against Women and Girls.” UN Women: Official Website. UN Women, 6 June 2013. Web.