This story is in partnership with World University Service of Canada
Young people today are more likely to be open-minded about gender roles than their counterparts from previous generations. Research shows they’re more likely to believe that gender equity is necessary to build a peaceful, prosperous world.
Youth engagement experts say there’s a huge opportunity for social impact organizations to engage youth as agents of change and include them in important decision-making processes to uplift gender equity at local, national and global levels.
Despite the progress that has been made over the past several decades, no country in the world has achieved gender equity. Even the most progressive nations have much work to do in this regard. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue and does so across virtually every metric, such as unemployment rates, domestic abuse, sex trafficking, child marriage, school dropout rates, sexual assault and more, especially for BIPOC women and/or women who earn a low income.
Consider how the pandemic has affected employment across the world. From McKinsey’s report, COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects: “Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses. One reason for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women.”
What’s special about engaging our youth on all of this, experts say, is that they can offer unique perspectives and creative solutions to problems that affect our most vulnerable people. Future of Good asked eight Canadian youth engagement leaders for their insight into what it will take to build and empower the next generation of global, socially conscious citizens.
Encourage young people to find their voice and speak up
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that when we begin to be silent about the things that matter, we begin to die. Speaking up is one of the most liberating and transformative concepts in life,” says Caren Wakoli, executive director of Emerging Leaders Foundation and certified leadership coach.
She speaks passionately about young people using their voices for the things that matter. “I always encourage young people to practice speaking up, even when they are afraid, even when their voices shake and go against the grain. Speak up against gender inequality,” she says. “Give other people room to speak up and share their truth. When we protect one another and give ourselves permission to speak up, be and become, we elevate one another, and we all shine.”
Focus on how young men and boys can fight for gender equity
Anyone who advocates for gender equity understands that it’s critical for men and boys to empower and support women and girls. “For the last decade, women have been fighting for global gender inequity but we need to focus more on what men can do to help instead of just looking at women’s actions,” says Aisha Zannah, a community outreach specialist at Future Prowess and activist for girl child education.
She also advocates for businesses taking responsibility: “Almost all big corporations are run by men, which have significant power to change the outcome for women. We should encourage companies to measure gender inequality within their organizational structures and learn from it.”
Treat gender inequity like a human rights issue
“The vast amount of gender equity work is being championed by women for women, which limits its scope and reach. We need to embed intersectional feminism in all of our equity work and have all genders rally behind it,” says Samanta Krishnapillai, founder and executive director of ON CANADA Project, a youth-led organization that sheds light on the social inequities that have been deepened by the pandemic by disseminating credible information to a broad audience. “The first step for doing this is to change the language around how we describe gender equity work. We need to categorically shift the discussion and label it a human rights issue rather than a women’s rights issue.” Young people’s open-mindedness could be ideally suited for this kind of work.
Look at policy through an intersectional gender lens
As the public affairs and program officer at Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to achieving gender parity in Canadian politics, Amen Ben Ahmouda believes that young people in Canada are dedicated, involved and passionate about community service and advancing change. “I think young Canadians as emerging policy leaders should push for having an intersectional gender lens in every piece of policy that we put forward. Any piece of legislation would be significantly modified if we considered it from an intersectional gender lens.”
She stresses the intersectional component because “without a conscious effort to make sure an intersectional lens is applied, we will leave behind the most marginalized. That includes LGBTQIA+ people, racialized communities, undocumented peoples, newcomers, etc. We can’t move forward towards gender equality and equity without making sure that their voices are reflected in legislation and to achieve this, we also need women from all walks of life at the decision-making table.”
Develop gender-sensitive mindsets through early education
As the founder and president of the Green Hope Foundation, Kehkashan Basu spearheads the organization’s grassroots efforts and advocacy at the highest levels of policymaking to create a just, equitable, peaceful and nuclear-weapons-free world. She believes that education is the key to encourage youth to fight for gender equity. “To make progress on creating a gender-equal world, we must first bring about changes in mindsets. Creating awareness from an early age holds the key and we must incorporate it into our education system right from primary school.”
She continues, “This isn’t just a topic for adults because by the time we leave school our biases are so deeply entrenched that it is very difficult to accept gender parity as normal. My big idea is for school boards to include this topic in the curriculum, in a structured manner, so that future generations grow up with positive mindsets that do not consider women and girls as the ‘fairer’ or ‘weaker’ sex.”
Give youth the stage and listen to what they have to say
Heather Barnabe, CEO of G(irls)20, an organization committed to placing emerging girl and women leaders on governance boards or committees across Canada, has a different take on the issue. “There are so many young Canadians involved in the fight for global gender equity. I don’t think we need big ideas to pull them in, I think we need big ideas to get decision-makers to listen to them.”
Young people are often overlooked and not taken seriously as critical contributors. “If only we could provide all young people with the opportunity to both learn and share their ideas, we’d see a positive impact in the fight for global gender equity. Long story short – young people are involved, they just need the mic and active listeners.”
Heather mentions five recommendations that decision-makers can follow to ensure youth voices can make a meaningful impact:
- Avoid the trap of tokenism
- Invest in coaching and sponsorship
- Acknowledge imposter syndrome
- Amplify young women’s voices
- Measure progress on intersectional gender markers
Encourage young people to engage with local, grassroots organizations that work to end gender-based violence (GBV)
A critical factor in global gender inequity is the prevalence of gender-based violence. Asha Dahir does her part to combat this as the community engagement manager and project coordinator at Aura Freedom International. She’s a big believer in encouraging young Canadians to engage with their local grassroots organizations that combat gender-based violence. “This can be done through social media, by educating yourself on the work that is being done in your community and city.”
What kind of information could social impact organizations provide to help young people educate themselves? “It might be reading up on colonialism and/or the impact of slavery in North America. It might be sharing knowledge on consent and healthy relationships. It might be calling out discrimination and being a supportive ally. It might look like learning about toxic masculinity and its impact on gender-based violence. Education is a journey, and we can never know everything, but taking that initial step is how we engage in the fight for global gender equity.”
Think of advancing gender equity as a collective responsibility
Rudayna Bahubeshi, who has worked with multiple organizations advancing gender equity, amplifying women and gender diverse individuals in politics and more, believes that fighting for gender equity should be seen as a collective responsibility rather than something to opt into. “We still frequently talk about ‘supporting vulnerable populations’, but we need to remind ourselves there is nothing inherently vulnerable about women, girls, Two-Spirit or non-binary people, and working in solidarity should be a requirement. The shortcomings are in our society, and so we all need to seek to change it.”
These quotes have been edited for length and clarity.