Youth Voices at the UN: Reflections from the CPD

Youth Voices at the UN: Reflections from the CPD

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As a young person attending a United Nations conference for the first time, I was filled with a mix of nerves and adrenaline. While the UN is an important space for international advocacy, it is notorious for being extremely bureaucratic and therefore slow and inaccessible for young people. Despite being an experienced youth advocate with strong background knowledge around the Commission on Population and Development, as I entered the space as a newcomer it was hard to shake the feeling of imposter syndrome. 

 

Thankfully, I was joined by an amazing CHOICE team, Veerle Dams (Advocacy Coordinator), Melchior Deekman (Program Coordinator), and Sara Bahgat (Youth Ambassador) to travel to New York for this pivotal conference. Aside from Veerle, who is an experienced UN advocate, it was everyone’s debut at the UN (and in New York!), so it was an exciting opportunity to share this new experience with each other. We knew, however, that this year was going to be different to previous CPD’s, as it commemorated thirty years since the adoption of the ICPD Programme of Action.

 

The International Conference on Population and Development took place in Cairo in 1994. It was a landmark event which saw the priorities of the UNFPA shift away from numerical population targets, to a new approach, focused on bodily autonomy and a range of fundamental rights. Here, the Programme of Action was established to achieve a range of essential goals, including the right to reproductive healthcare, an end to maternal mortalities and the right for young people to be meaningfully involved in decisions affecting their lives and futures. Having co-created CHOICE’s ICPD youth resources, I understand the profound impact of these international agreements, particularly in recognising the importance of giving young people a seat at the table in decision-making bodies. As such, a far greater focus on young people at this year’s conference was expected. As a youth-led organisation, however, we were curious as to what extent the conference would meaningfully amplify youth voices, or whether the CPD would simply be another space where youth are only discussed, rather than heard.



Young people at CPD

 

As anticipated, this year's conference saw a big boost in young people present, with more youth organisations and national youth delegates than ever before. These delegates, such as Sara Bahgat for the Netherlands, play a crucial role, as they are present in the negotiation room for the CPD outcome document and can influence the national positions. Aside from Sara, there were youth delegates representing Denmark, Norway, Germany, the UK amongst others and more delegations expressed interest in bringing youth delegates to future CPD conferences, showing an encouraging trend towards greater youth participation at the CPD. 

 

 

There were many other opportunities, through side-events, for young people to have their voices heard by high-level UN and government figures. At these events, young people shared their experiences around relevant issues, for example, online misinformation about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Despite being designed to give young people a voice, often, the high-level figures spoke beyond their allotted time, taking up space which was designated for young people. Considering there were already limited opportunities for meaningful and inclusive youth participation within the CPD programme, this was disappointing. 

 

Although we appreciated the positive steps towards including more young people, we believe the CPD must do more to amplify youth voices. We lobbied various high-level officials to implement a dedicated youth dialogue at the CPD, similar to the one at the Commission on the Status of Women. Introducing this dedicated youth dialogue at the CPD would be a natural fit given the crucial role young people play in the ICPD agenda. It would ensure that youth voices are genuinely heard and considered at the CPD.

 

Political Declaration

 

One of the main goals for civil society and government delegations at the CPD is to influence the outcome documents: texts agreed upon each year by all participating governments. Although these documents are not legally binding, they serve as crucial tools for local advocates, allowing  governments to be held accountable to their international commitments. The documents are the result of closed-door negotiations where only government delegations are present, while civil society works to influence these negotiations from outside. For an outcome document to be published, it must have unanimous approval from all member states; otherwise, nothing is adopted, which has been the case for the past two CPD conferences. Given this year marked thirty years since the ICPD, adopting an outcome document was essential for the continued implementation of the Programme of Action and the future of the CPD. This year's document was a political declaration, which is content-light theoretically easier to agree-upon. 

 

As a youth-led, SRHR-focused organisation, our goal was to make sure that our core issues were represented in the document. To our delight, the earliest version of the document included references to sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as multiple references to the rights of young people. As the document undergoes many changes before consensus is reached, our mission was clear: to lobby for these elements to remain.

 

Unfortunately, the final version of the political declaration was adopted just as we, as well as most civil society representatives, arrived in New York for the CPD, leaving civil society and most youth delegates without any opportunity to influence the document in person. While we were relieved that an outcome document was adopted, reaffirming the Programme of Action on such an important anniversary, we found the final document disappointingly weak. Every reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights were removed, and all mentions of young people were eliminated. This was incredibly disheartening, as we were unable to impact the conference's most significant outcome. However, we saw this as an opportunity to focus on other priorities: youth movement building and delivering our statement at the General Debate, which I was personally responsible for.

 

Youth Movement Building

 

This year's political declaration showed that young people were not seen as a priority at the CPD, and we knew we had to change this. With many young people travelling from far away to attend the conference, we focused on building a sustainable youth movement at the CPD to ensure we cannot be ignored in the future.

 

Alongside Lucy from the Major Group for Youth and Children and Ramesh from Advocates for Youth, we organised a side event exclusively for young people to brainstorm and discuss their experiences at the CPD. We aimed to make this session different from typical UN side-events, which often involve long, pre-prepared speeches with minimal interactive elements. Instead, we offered real dialogue, collective brainstorming, visualisation exercises, and, of course, pizza.

 

 

The session was a great success, with attendees appreciating the open and free atmosphere. Many left feeling hopeful about the future of youth involvement at the CPD. We discussed issues important to our own contexts and what youth should focus on at future CPD conferences and other global events. We particularly discussed the Cotonou Youth Action Agenda, created at the Global Youth Dialogue, this agenda powerfully reflects the needs of young people around the world and puts the political declaration of the CPD to shame. 

 

Feeling inspired after the session, I learned a lot and connected with many youth advocates from around the world. Energised by these new connections and insights, I decided to start re-writing the statement I was set to deliver the following day.

 

Delivering the Statement

 

The most exciting and terrifying moment of the conference for me was delivering the statement at the General Debate on behalf of CHOICE. Although we had a prepared statement covering many key areas of focus for CHOICE, the events of the week and meaningful discussions with young people inspired me to transform it into something more relevant to the CPD. We felt it was crucial to represent the Cotonou Youth Action Agenda and express our frustration that these outcomes were not reflected in the political declaration. We also wanted to highlight the real humanitarian crises happening worldwide, such as in Gaza, and the importance of an intersectional approach to implementing the ICPD Programme of Action. In the end, we finalised a strong statement that encapsulated many of the discussions we had throughout the week, giving it a youthful vibe. You can watch a video of the statement being delivered below.

 

As I sat ready to deliver the statement, my laptop completely broke down, which was not good for my stress levels. Luckily, Veerle saved the day by lending me her laptop, and thankfully everything went smoothly from this point. I was extremely proud of the statement we put together, and you can see me deliver it below.

 

 

Reflecting on our week at the CPD, it became clear that we felt the UN still has a long way to go to achieve meaningful and inclusive participation of young people at their conferences. In spite of this, we were grateful to meet so many passionate young people from around the world claiming their rightful space within these processes; leaving us feeling inspired and hopeful for the future!

 

Although the CPD is flawed, I highly recommend any young person who has the chance to attend, to do so. Although I entered the space with a sense of imposter syndrome, I ended the week feeling confident and empowered to share my perspective and fight for justice within this arena (and beyond!).This year, we saw more spaces dedicated to young people, and we can only hope this is one of many steps toward achieving meaningful and inclusive youth participation, but this can only be acheived if more passionate young people claim their rightful space at the UN.