Remarks by Ambassador Lisa Peterson Delivered by PAO Joia Starks “1 Billion Rising – National Women’s Dialogue”

EU Representatives
Members of Parliament
Regional Administrator
Representatives of Lutsango LwakaNgwane
Director of Gender and Family Department
Human Trafficking Head of Secretariat
Representatives of the International Women Peace Group (IWPG)
One Billion Coordinators
Royal Swaziland Police Representatives
Municipal Councils Representatives
Non-Governmental Organizations Directors

Good morning.

Almost two months ago to the day, Ambassador Peterson stood before a similar crowd of concerned citizens, gender activists, chiefs, and politicians and talked about the shocking levels of gender inequality between Swazi men and women. But she also recounted the story of what is possible when we stand together against injustices. The result can be a society where everyone feels valued, respected, and heard. It is a goal which the United States has yet to attain, but the progress is there, steady and strong, thanks to the vision and drive of every day Americans. Counted among those who are pushing us forward is an enthusiastic and visionary group of young people, with a fire in their belly and an unflappable determination to see change for the country.

Nowhere is the impact of youth on society starker than here in Africa. Africa is now the “youngest” continent, with the oldest history. The facts are staggering: right now, there are over 225 million people between the ages of 15 to 24 in Africa. According to UNICEF’s estimates, by mid-century, the under-18 population will reach one billion. And by the end of this century, one in four people on the planet will be African. It is one of the reasons why former President Barack Obama launched the Young African Leaders Initiative – and why it continues today with broad bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

I realize how difficult it is to think about life after we are long gone, but this is our rightful duty as leaders, as parents, and as citizens of the world. What kind of world shall we leave to our children, grandchildren, and future generations?  Will it be one where they are faced with the same recurring scourges that we have battled, such as gender-based violence, abuse, and corruption?  Or will it be their turn to finally proclaim these adversities as a thing of their parents’ generation?  If we choose the latter, the answer is simple. It is time that we listen to our youth. They do not just need a seat at the table; they need a voice in the decision making and a stake in their future.

History gives us countless lessons about the power of youth movements to fight unjust systems and entrenched socio-political structures. Earlier this week, we had an internal Embassy discussion about race, violence, and civil liberties in the United States.  Racial tensions have flared as a result of the indiscriminate killing of young African-American men by police officers. This led three young Black women to start the Black Lives Matter movement, a grassroots effort that quickly spread across the nation. Young people mobilized, they protested, they called Congress, they shut down highways, and they demanded to be heard. Because they saw an injustice that they felt was handled inappropriately within the current system of power, they invented their own solution.

The same elements of discontent were at play when more than 900 Black youth, some as young as six years old, were arrested for protesting Alabama’s segregation laws during The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  In the Latino community, Mexican-American farm workers found their voice in Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, two of the greatest champions for labor unions and equal rights in our country’s history. They were part of the Chicano Movement that sought to challenge ethnic stereotypes about Mexicans and improve working conditions for farmers. The Vietnam War years saw a dramatic increase in student activism as several peaceful protests against the U.S. involvement in the war turned violent. During the Arab Spring of 2011, youth resistance in Tunisia and Egypt led to the toppling of several entrenched regimes. They grew impatient with the slow pace of change doled out by those charged to act in their interests. Their voices were heard across the globe. These are only a few examples of how young people have played a pivotal role in shifting the attitudes and actions of their government officials and fellow citizens.

For those who may feel inclined to muzzle young voices – through nation-wide network black outs, tear gas, or worse – I offer a small word of caution: resist that urge. Because when you silence youth, you are aborting solutions to your most pressing challenges. You are amputating the lifeline to your future prosperity. Instead, it is up to adults to help harness the talents, energy, and capacities of their youngest populations. Supporting and guiding our youth in their pursuit of education, information, and autonomy should be at the helm of our civic and political efforts. Moreover, we must be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our own knowledge. If we continue to operate under the assumption that the oldest person in the room is unquestionably the smartest person in the room, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice by stifling thought. We must work together to foster intergenerational discussions that do not curb the contributions or rights of any one group.

I want to commend the young leaders of the GLOW and BRO Clubs, who have amplified their voices against a global challenge: the exploitation of women and girls. They have answered the call to action with resounding force to stand together against gender-based violence. And this is what we need now – unified voices and a collective purpose – to advance policies and laws that will protect women and girls. You are doing tremendous work and you should be proud of yourselves.

By empowering youth to think critically and creatively about our challenges, we are all better off. With the knowledge and understanding that comes from self-exploration and discovery, they are finding new solutions to age-old problems. I urge everyone here to let us be the ones who learn from history’s lessons. Let us be the ones who create a space for new voices and new ideas. Let us be the problem solvers and change makers. This is not just a dream but an imperative for progress.

Thank you.