This World Day of the Girl Child, themed: EmPOWER girls: before, during and after conflict, we asked twenty-three-year old Farai Mubaiwa—African change-maker, feminist and youth leader, as well as 2017 Queen's Young Leader for South Africa—what drove her to found the Africa Matters initiative. Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment encourages young people to take the lead, Think Beyond and Live Within, for a sustainable future for our planet.
This World Day of the Girl Child, why is it important that we focus on empowering girls before, during and after conflict?
Africa Matters is a women-led and youth-led organization that empowers young people in South Africa and across the continent to change the narrative through leadership development, capacity and skills building, and community impact projects. To achieve our mandate, we have set up two programmes: the Schools Leadership Development Programme, targeting students aged between 11 – 18, and the Ambassadors Programme. Both train youth in leadership skills, social entrepreneurship, African leadership and African feminisms. Through sound education, skills and leadership development, we aim to change the perception that youth are incapable of leading Africa forward. Instead, we equip young people with skills to lead communities away from poverty and conflict.
Why did you decide to found Africa Matters?
In 2015, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris gained the attention of the international community, including African leaders who marched down the streets of Paris. At the same time, there were a series of terrorist attacks in Baga, northeastern Nigeria. Yet the world did not stand in solidarity with Nigeria. Why the double standards? Do African lives not matter? Together with my friend Reanne Olivier, we founded the Africa Matters Initiative. The aim: to equip African youth—especially girls and women—with skills and tools to change this narrative. Africa’s emerging youth require investment in education and skills building, to ensure that this demographic is an opportunity rather than a burden. Young Africans can solve complex African challenges in their own communities. For too long Africa has been painted as the dark continent with no prospects for economic growth or decent living. The millions of youth born into Africa are fed this same negative narrative, which results in seeking greener pastures in other lands. This negative narrative is exacerbated by the media. We aim to change this.
Apart from education, what are the other ways that young people can be empowered to make a difference and prevent conflict?
I believe there are four additional ways to empower African youth. As outlined in the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Generation 2030 Africa 2.0 report, they are: strengthened essential services, skills enhancement, protection of women and children, and investment in young people. These four pillars are necessary for African youth to flourish. Contrary to what is often argued, African youth are not lazy. When Africa Matters first opened applications for our Ambassadors Programme, we expected around 50 applications. We received 540. African youth are saying: ‘We are here, give us the skills and tools because we want to make change.’ African youth want to do work that has social impact. We must train this new generation and empower youth to work towards a better Africa.
How do you bring concern for the environment into your programmes, and how is the environment related to issues of conflict?
Because of how environmental activism was portrayed, I believed that environmental issues are those championed by white people. I had always believed that black people, particularly African black women, have so much to deal with already. Why should we care about the environment? But this perception changed when I attended a workshop exploring sustainability and environmental issues in South Africa. The workshop attendees were all black people whose homes, schools and health were being destroyed by toxic waste from multinational companies. It struck me that often, poor women of color are disproportionately affected by climate change, and at the sharp end of environmental crises—which can even fuel conflict in communities. These were the same women that we were trying to empower through Africa Matters. Today, Africa Matters focuses on environmental issues, youth and gender, as three key topics.
What advice you would give other youth leaders?
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, a South Africa mathematician and researcher and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, once said to me: ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’ We are always waiting for politicians or business leaders to bring the change that we want to see in our communities. But we, as young people, can’t afford to wait any longer. Become a change-maker today.