Youth around the world advocate for democracy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sitting in front of two U.S. flags and two signs reading Summit for Democracy (State Dept./Freddie Everett)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a virtual discussion with young democratic leaders during the Summit for Democracy December 8 in Washington. (State Dept./Freddie Everett)

Discriminatory voting laws, disinformation, internet blackouts, lack of civics education — these are some of the obstacles preventing young people from participating in their countries’ democracies.

“Democracy is about agency and voice,” said Lynrose Jane Genon from the Philippines, a member of the executive committee for Young Women Leaders for Peace-Philippines and a youth lead for the Community of Democracies. “It’s about giving everyone agency and a say in decision making as well as meaningful and not tokenistic opportunity to have a direct and practical say in issues affecting their lives.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken heard from Genon and three other youth activists during the Young Democratic Leaders Discussion December 8, ahead of the Summit for Democracy.

These young leaders shared their experiences of community organizing, thoughts on why democracy is important and steps governments can take to include younger generations in their democracies.

“One of President Biden’s top priorities is ensuring that the voices of young people are heard on the major issues and challenges before us,” Blinken said, “and that their perspectives are reflected in our policies and how we engage with the world.”

In 2020, activists in Chile demanded a plebiscite — a vote to determine if a country should rewrite its constitution. The plebiscite passed by a landslide, garnering 78% of approval votes.

Margarita Maira, an advocacy coordinator for Chile’s Ahora Nos Toca Participar, says this was only successful because young people led grassroots efforts to get out the vote.

“It became clear that [younger generations] are capable, powerful, tireless, mature, intelligent, and generous,” she said.

Mwila Chriseddy Bwanga from Zambia agrees that when it comes to democracy, young people should create the change they want to see.

“Young people can organize and defend their vote and defend the democracy that they so desire,” said Bwanga, founder and executive director of BeRelevant Africa.

The power of young people’s voices shows most when governments try to silence them. “This is something we have seen [is] quite common across the African region — shutting down the internet during an electoral process,” he said.

Blinken asked each participant for a wish list from their country for strengthening democracy. The young leaders unanimously agreed that more investment — of both time and money — is essential.

According to the panelists, governments should:

  • Invest in civil organizations that promote democratic voting processes.
  • Finance and provide mentorship for youth organizations at local and national levels, and teach them how to enlarge their operations.
  • Create partnerships between youth and adults where power is shared.
  • Make civics education a priority for everyone at the public school level.

“Recognizing young people as partners is my main recommendation,” said Daria Onyshko of Ukraine, program officer for the Community of Democracies. “Young people have tremendous potential and skill to offer.”