“My Voice Counts” by BYDC Female Ambassador at 2012 UN Human Rights Day Celebrations

Let me begin by thanking the UNDP for this great opportunity to be here and to speak to such an esteemed audience. The person who you were promised in that wonderful biography just now is not the person you will observe. I am but a teenage young lady from a typical Barbadian household striving to find my place in a world well versed in creating clones. Never the less MY VOICE Counts. This year as we celebrate Human Rights Day 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Office is asking us to be cognizant that every individual has a right to use his or her voice in the decision making process which will ultimately affect their future. This evening, I will examine this very point while paying special emphasis to Youth. Youth in democracy, and the economic, social and cultural sectors.

In Barbados, we have for generations been raised to believe that children and by extension youth should be seen and not heard. This belittling has often resulted in our young people losing their self-confidence and becoming discouraged from participating in civic and political affairs.

Valuable ideas often go to waste and the very innovation which we so often claim we need is lost. Those few brave souls who dare to be different are often not cognisant of their rights and avenues through which they can become involved. The question is then asked: Who will hear the voices of our youth whispering in the darkness about issues such as unemployment, sexual abuse and bullying.

The majority of social institutions in which young people participate are designed for youth but run by adults with little youthful input. The demands of young people are often blocked by the tendency to believe that young people are not full members of society and cannot claim to exercise the rights that are directly or indirectly related to them. However society still expects these youth to conform to the norms and to be active citizens yet it often does not give them their full complement of rights. The tokenistic nature of many of our institutions therefore needs to change towards an approach which is more participatory.

Of course as a young person I welcome such initiatives as our National Youth Policy which was recently laid in parliament. It is my hope that such a document would not merely exist in paper but would come to life and create greater space for our youth to become involved in our system of democratic governance. Far too often we find that consultations are held but there is little action on the recommendations of our youth.

Our island has made great strides towards establishing and enforcing human rights through Chapter 3 of our constitution. Therefore, the challenges which now confront us may not relate to the need for adult suffrage or universal access to primary education but nevertheless we should never be complacent in believing that the struggle for equality is over. The challenge for my generation is to maintain and advance these rights which our grandparents worked so hard for and to ensure that we build a society in which future generations can also enjoy such rights.

Cherisse Francis in conversation with UN Resident Coordinator Michelle Gyles-McDonnough

Cherisse Francis in conversation with UN Resident Coordinator Michelle Gyles-McDonnough

In order to do this we must recognise that young people are not a problem to be solved but we hold the solution to many of the issues which our society faces and we must therefore be engaged in a meaningful way. Within the information age, policy makers must understand that there are many competing interest for the attention of our youth. Persons often say young people are not interested in civic and political affairs but I strongly disagree with this. The 2008 and 2012 American presidential elections have shown this to be a myth as the interest by young people across the world and in Barbados was phenomenal.

Our policymakers must find new and innovative strategies to engage our young people particularly through new Information and Communications technologies. While preparing for this evening and simultaneously on Facebook a friend shared a picture which I find so appropriate.

It is a quote by Huey P. Newton which says ‘Youths are passed through schools that don’t teach ,then forced to search for jobs that don’t exist and finally left to stand in the streets to stare at the glamorous lives advertised around them’.

In this way the system has failed many of our youth and we are expected to walk even before we can creep. If I am supposed to have the right to participate in the governance system of country and equal access to the public service as articulated in Article 21 of the Human Rights declaration then I must first be able to understand how that system works. Knowledge is indeed power, and conversely those without knowledge are disempowered.

Individuals obviously feel excluded from a system if they do not understand it. I therefore take this time to call for greater emphasis and invest in non-formal education in such areas as human rights, democracy and civic education for our young people. I also call for greater support to youth-led and independent organisations such as the Barbados Youth Development Council which seek to empower our youth and promote youth rights. I also call for more inclusion in spaces such as this one and for the innovation and creativity of our youth to be embraced not dismissed simply because it is not understood or doesn’t conform to the norm.

Furthermore, I wish to advocate for a rights-based approach in dealing with our youth. In Barbados when say we have given youth a voice, do we actually listen? Too often a young person tries to speak up and to give an opinion on a matter of great importance only to be told ‘your ideas won’t work’ , ‘they are too fetched’ or ‘’too ambitious”.

Our freedom of expression as Article 19 of the Human Rights declaration must be respected. If our opinions and aspiration are dismissed, then how can we make any meaningful contribution to our society? Shortly we will be faced with a general election, to what extent have we listened to our young people or employed such avenues as social media to receive their input? Or have such avenues been used solely for political propaganda instead of youthful empowerment?

One may ask, why it is so important that the voices of our youth are heard? Aristotle said ‘Good habits formed at youth make all the difference’. If our youth are to become the leaders of tomorrow then it is important that we cultivate in them a culture of leadership and open-mindedness. This in itself dictates that we make them aware that they have a voice and that we encourage the use of their voices for their upliftment and that of our wider society.

When our young people realise the power of their voice, whether it be in a whisper, in a song, in a shout; then they are truly on their way to changing the world. One only has to look at recent global events such as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movement to see the impact of the voices our young people.

I wish to echo the words of the late Rt Excellent Errol Walton Barrow when he said:

“….. Young people must be made to feel, however inarticulate they maybe, that someone is listening to them; they are tired of being told what they are expected to do. It is time we asked the young people of Barbados how best do you think you can develop as a person, how best can we help you to be creative and to realize the maximum [of] your human potential.”

Today I urge you to join with me and to take up the challenge. Respect youth rights and help our young people to realize that our voices do count!

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