The recent March for Our Lives in the United States inspired millions not just across America, but also around the world. Until the nationwide demonstrations on March 24, most people thought that little new could be added to the conversation about the seemingly endless rounds of gun killings.
Yet the brave and moving way in which, out of their anguish and pain, young people told the world that decisions on gun laws and safe schools are too important to be left to adults who had let them down has reshaped the political landscape, perhaps permanently and fundamentally.
It’s not just in America that a youth-led revolution is coming alive. Around the world, young people are becoming a power in their own right. Millions of young people are now engaged in what has become the civil-rights struggle of our time – the fight for every child’s right to go to school, and to do so in safety.
Likewise, in Bangladesh, starting in the remote Nilphamari district, thousands of girls have driven forward the “wedding busters” movement to create “child marriage-free zones.” Inspired by the Girls Not Brides movement, and at the risk of beatings and sometimes murder, schoolgirls have united to defy their own parents to prevent forced marriages that would cut short their childhood and deprive them of an education. And, in Nigeria, the group Youth Advocates for Change marched through the capital Abuja in 2015 demanding safe schools and proper police and army protection against the terrorist extremists of Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is a sin”).
The picture is clear: we are in the midst of a fight for freedom that has gone global. It includes girls in India demonstrating against police inaction over sexual assaults; Pakistani schoolchildren marching through Lahore after the latest Taliban attack on schools; young people on the streets of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, supporting refugees; and Yemeni students demonstrating against a war that has destroyed hundreds of schools and left two million children with no education.
The global youth uprising has intensified this year. In January, 40 million children and adults in India protested against child marriage by forming a human chain stretching more than 8,000 miles, woven through village after village in Bihar state. In February, Peruvian students were fired upon in Lima as they demonstrated against what they called the “Youth Slave Law,” which would employ students as unpaid interns. And thousands of students have taken to the streets in Honduras and India to oppose the rising cost of higher education.
These new movements reflect our current digital age, in which young people can increasingly connect with one another in their own countries and across borders. In doing so, they are exposing the gap between the promise of opportunity and the grim reality of unequal chances – especially for girls, who comprise the majority of the 260 million children worldwide who are not in school, and the majority of the 400 million children who finish their education by the age of 11 or 12. Indeed, half the worlds’ children – some 800 million – finish school without any of the qualifications needed for the workforce of tomorrow. Many are condemned years before they reach the official school-leaving age to child labor, child marriage, or even to child trafficking.
Young people’s new message of defiance and hope for real change echoes the compelling plea for environmental action by a 12-year-old girl, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. It was Cullis-Suzuki who brought a low-key conference to its feet – and started to bring a skeptical world to its senses – when she said that the environment was too important a matter to be entrusted to adults. The older generation, having failed to deliver a sustainable environment, could not be permitted to ruin the chances and opportunities of the next generation.
Almost a century ago, Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children, said that the only language everybody could understand was the cry of a child. But the cries of children have all too often been swept aside, and even the most progressive among us have acted as if children are silent observers, to be seen but not heard, passive objects of our actions. If the enduring image from a century ago is one of helpless children waiting to be protected and pitied, then the image remembered by the next generation will be radically different. As young people connect, communicate, and assert their rights, their cries are less likely to be tearful pleas for charity than defiant marches demanding justice.
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In the next few days, young people in Pakistan, where seven million school-age children are denied the chance to attend school, will launch a petition demanding the right to education. Their plea will be backed at the G20 Argentina Summit this November, when 700 Global Youth Ambassadors from 90 countries, mobilized through the Theirworld charity, call on world leaders to support a new International Finance Facility for Education – a multi-billion fund dedicated to enabling all children to go to school.
It is an important moment – both inspiring and chastening for those of us who were children of a 1960s cultural revolution that failed to fulfill its promise, and now find ourselves overtaken by new movements with far more global potential for good. The torch is not being passed to a new generation; this new generation has had to seize it. They deserve our support.