Power to the Youth, Power to the World

More than 1 billion people on this planet are between the ages of 15 and 24. That's about one in every five people.

Now imagine if these youth were world leaders deciding their countries' fates -- if they were calling the shots on poverty alleviation and ending hunger and gender inequality. Is this so hard to imagine? In many developing countries youth make up 30-50 percent of their country's population. This is called the youth bulge and some international development practitioners see this as a problem instead of an untapped opportunity.

Many youth around the world have grown up under the worst circumstances -- experiencing conflict that has torn families apart and decimated communities; or have witnessed or survived unspeakable violence. Even under extreme circumstances, many of the world's youth are doing amazing things to make their communities and countries better.

Some are social entrepreneurs starting businesses that make a difference while making profit. Some are community activists raising awareness in their communities and mobilizing people to use their collective power for good. Some are catalysts for political transformations giving voice and agency to many who have been denied that voice for far too long.

Just about every young person today is part of the social age of connectivity. Today's youth are more connected than the generation that came before them and no matter the life experience, youth -- and especially young women -- have rich perspectives that matter. This is precisely why they must be heard and heeded and why we must listen and learn.

August 12 marks International Youth Day, which gives us all an opportunity to stop and listen to what young women are telling us about their lives and the change they want.

In the last month, Women Thrive has talked with young women from Peru to Burundi about what matters to them and their hopes and dreams for the future. Here's some of what they had to say:

The preference for boys over girls in my community is still one of the big issues we are facing... While girls may have easy access to education, boys are preferred, especially when it comes to studying at university. It's thought that boys will do better than girls. But people are wrong. I know many examples where girls did better than their brothers in university. So I hope this is going to change... I hope that all of our country will understand that a girl like me can do what a boy my age can do." -- Magnifique, 18, Rwanda

As someone living with physical disability in Cameroon and the many challenges I have had to go through, I look forward to the day when people with disability--especially girls--have equal opportunities like everyone with dreams and hopes. -- Bertila, 18, Cameroon

I would like for young women to be able to walk around in public without fear of rape or harassment. We deserve to feel safe in public. My campus has several groups and trainings to prevent sexual violence among my peers, and I hope I can continue to participate in these and encourage my friends to take them seriously. -- Emily, 18, United States

[E]ven in spaces where people are supposed to be the most educated, sexism is a BIG issue and it passes by with no recognition. You're expected to just accept everything men say or tell you to do, no questioning allowed, otherwise you're 'killing the mood' or 'overreacting'. Happily, people my age are starting to realize this is wrong and we should raise our voices to stop it, but the response is still almost always negative. When I say I'm a feminist, people take it as if it were a bad word, which makes me really sad and angry because it means a lot to me to be able to call myself one and it represents the equality I believe in...

I have to work harder for people to take me seriously since they don't value my opinion as much as they would a man's. The world is always trying to make me smaller, to make me blend instead of letting me be different in my own way and love myself for that. I used to be really quiet and shy, but now I'm starting to realize that what I have to say is important for me and for women and If I wanna make a change, I have to go out there and make myself visible, and I'm happy to do it. -- Lia, 18, Peru

Among the main problems girls my age have is early pregnancy. Girls engage in sexual intercourse very early. Many do it because of poverty. They have sex with adult men who will provide some of their material needs: buying clothes, shoes, etc. As a result, most of us get pregnant and leave school... I hope to see, in my community, more and more girls finish their studies. This will only happen if the government takes measures to fight against early pregnancy by prosecuting the men involved. Sex education in school is also very important. But I can't forget our parents. They have a major role to play. They need to break with our tradition that considers talking about sex-related issues in family as taboo. -- Natacha, 18, Burundi

In listening to these young women I am reminded that while we have come a long way, we are not yet where we want to be. Gender discrimination, sexual violence, teen pregnancy, tradition, and a lack of tolerance and social inclusion are obstacles in the way of Magnifique, Bertila, Lia, Emily, Natacha and many more young women -- hindering their ability to harness their full potential to transform their lives. The truth is, when their lives are better, all our lives will be better.

The young women we spoke with have the power to change the world--they are identifying the issues that hold back women, girls, and families, and they are uniquely able to pinpoint the kinds of policy and shifts in social relations that need to happen to make a real difference.

Most importantly, they want to contribute their skills and ideas, and their creativity to make a difference. They can and they will if we are willing to listen.

My own hope for the future is that leaders of every kind -- those like myself who run NGOs and those who run countries -- hear and heed the voice of young women on the issues they care about, on International Youth Day and every other day.