Caroline Riseboro

Canadian youth have something to say – Malala says we should listen

Caroline Riseboro

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s a new wave of activism on the rise. They’re informed, opinionated and demanding action. They’re not afraid to speak out against the grain and speak up for what they believe in. They’re organized, and they can mobilize for their cause. We’ve seen public speeches, petitions, rallies, and a recent Ontario walk-out believed to be the largest student protest in Canadian history.

One thing is clear – the young people of today have something to say and we need to be listening.

As this wave builds, it’s caught the attention of a particular young woman whose own activism has sprung her to the ranks of youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipients and TIME 100’s Most Influential People list – Malala Yousafzai.

Malala Yousafzai and Plan International Canada President & CEO, Caroline Riseboro at the Art of Leadership event on April 4, 2019.

Like many others, I have been inspired by Malala and her incredible story. Her advocacy and my work at Plan International Canada have been closely aligned, sharing the guiding purpose of ensuring all girls have the opportunity to learn and become leaders. She is an example of the inherent power of youth and a fixture in the fight for gender equality. On a global stage, Malala embodies a fact that I know to be true: that young people, especially young women, are a force of nature.

I have seen firsthand the impact that youth can have, the power their voices wield. I wanted to know – what can today’s youth activists learn from each other? More importantly, what can the rest of the world learn from them and how can we cultivate spaces where their voices are heard and respected?

A recent Plan International Canada study revealed that only 19% of women in Canada feel that youth have the biggest opportunity to achieve gender equality. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but think; why are we underestimating our most powerful tool for change?

I recently had the opportunity to interview Malala at The Art Of Leadership for Women events in Calgary and Vancouver to discuss what it takes to be a leader and the power of youth-led change.  As an incredible young woman whose impact will span far beyond her years, I wanted Malala’s take on why youth are facing challenges being heard.

So I asked her: Why do you think young people are so well positioned to take on some of society’s toughest challenges and what advice would you give to young activists about how to not feel alone?

Malala’s response to me was, “I don’t know the golden rule to help people find confidence in their voice. Often we feel – what can I do as one person? We don’t realize that when we do it together, it becomes a movement. And what we have seen in the past is that such movements bring change. People will listen to you when you’re on the right side. When you speak the truth and are on the right path, people will listen. You will win.”

If we can take anything away from Malala’s words, it’s this – we need to listen. Right now, there are 1.8 billion youth aged 10 to 24 alive. It’s the largest global population of youth in history. It also means we have over 1 billion ways to create a brighter future – 1 billion chances to change the world.

Young people are the experts about their lives. They are bringing forward issues that are important to them, speaking about potential impacts and using their experiences to disrupt the status quo. By listening to them and inviting them to participate in conversations that impact their future, we are learning. As Malala shared with me, “Listening is power. It allows you to learn, to process and to elaborate your way of thinking.” More importantly, through listening, young people will realize that their voice is valued. For young women, this is acutely important.

At Plan International Canada, we’ve been empowering youth to blaze a trail. This June, our Youth for Gender Equality initiative will launch The Roadmap to Gender Equality, the first ever youth-led roadmap to achieve SDG 5 (Gender Equality) in Canada based on the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Through workshops and dialogues, young men and women are leading the way to a gender-equal future in Canada and globally. It is their voices that will create these ground-breaking recommendations for much-needed change.

In March 2019, youth gathered in Ottawa to draft the Youth-Led Roadmap to Gender Equality as part of the Youth for Gender Equality initiative.

When I asked Malala why she first decided to speak up as an 11 year-old girl, her response to me was this, “The greatest fear of my future was losing my right to study. Being forced to marry at 14, or become a mother too soon. Forced to live my life within four walls. For me and for all girls, I decided to speak up. When I was targeted, I realized the Taliban was listening to my voice. It was an opportunity to realize – nothing can stop me.”

For all youth activists with something to say, we hear you. Your voice is valued. And we will keep listening, because with you at the helm, change is imminent.