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Youth still under-represented in leadership

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Youth still under-represented in leadership

—Samar Mezghanni
Kingsley Ighobor
From Africa Renewal: 
Samar Mezghanni
Samar Mezghanni
Samar Mezghanni

Twenty-eight-year-old Samar Samir Mezghanni, a Tunisian Iraqi, is one of the 17 United Nations young leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), who have been chosen to engage their peers in implementing the SDGs. She has written stories for children on the SDGs and garnered two world records from Guinness, first at the age of 12, when she was declared “the world’s youngest writer”; then at 14, when she was declared “the youngest most prolific writer in the world.” In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu, Samar talks about her work to make the SDGs more accessible to youth, and the challenges and hopes of young people in Tunisia.

Africa Renewal: What informed your selection to be a United Nations Young Leader for SDGs?

Samar: I wrote books in a creative and innovative way for children, young people and others, using the stories to transfer values that are enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals. 

How do you explain SDGs in an easy-to-understand manner?

If you look at the SDGs, they come back to some basic needs that can be expressed in very organic and simple language. For example, one of my last stories is about a mother representing the planet Earth to her children, who end up fighting over it. These children could be world’s nations, or they could be people. I was depicting the different inequalities that exist in the world today and how we can overcome them. During my speech at last year’s UN Youth Forum held here in New York, where I was invited as a keynote speaker, I used one of my stories to articulate these ideas in a language that is more accessible to children and other young people. 

How so?

Basically, it is really about looking at the goals not as an agenda that is institutional but global. Not as a thing that is owned by the UN, but by people all over the world. Not as an action plan for bureaucrats, but one for human beings today. So if you look at it from that perspective, it’s very easy to put stories for children that englobe those SDGs.

What is the situation of youths in your country today? What are their hopes and challenges?

We are facing the same problems young people from other parts of the world are facing: unemployment, underrepresentation and lack of education. However, for Tunisia specifically, five years after challenging an oppressive regime, I think young people are still struggling with subtle forms of repression and oppression that prevent them from becoming leaders, obviously in politics, but also in other areas in society. I feel that the revolution that gave space in the streets for young people has not yet opened up space in influential leadership positions for young people to occupy. I guess this is the biggest challenge facing young people in Tunisia.

Is there any hope that those challenges will be met anytime soon? 

If soon means one year, I don’t think these issues can be solved soon. If soon is 14 years, which is what is left for the SDGs to be implemented, it will depend on how we act on these issues instead of just talking about them. So I think there is hope in Tunisia. 

So is there anything the youth themselves believe they can do to change things, or are they just waiting for things to change? 

In Tunisia, if there is anyone believing in change and making change, it is young people. We just don’t hear from them, because at the UN General Assembly you only hear about the successes and achievements of governments. But actually, when the government passes a law to fight corruption or make the country more democratic, it’s not doing it because it’s offering it to the citizens, it’s doing it because the citizens have challenged the government and have pressured it to pass that law. Considering that young people are one of the biggest populations in the country, it is actually them who have been fighting corruption, advocating and putting government representatives and the leadership in a very uncomfortable position, making them take action.

The pace of change will depend on the youth and how deeply they are involved in political processes. Don’t you think so?

Yes, absolutely. But then again, it’s a two-way thing. The involvement of youth depends on the enabling environment they are offered, and also on whether their involvement would not put them at a risk of being persecuted.

If a young Tunisian wanted to see one or two things happen to quicken the pace of change, what would they be?

I think if there is one thing that needs to happen in my country, and actually in the whole Arab region, to quicken change is to gain the trust of the people. Up until now, our leaders still have not gained enough trust and confidence from the people, and especially from the young people, in order for their action to be meaningful. They are still being questioned, and rightfully so, by young people. As I said, the youth population in Tunisia is quite big, but there are no young leaders in politics or leading political movements. Young people are still not being represented in the most transparent, democratic and representative way. That must change.