Milena Bacalja 

“Human rights are not a gift or charity. No one is giving you anything.” On the first day of a gathering of youth experts from around the world these words permeate through a room of passionate, youth activists. Whilst inspiring words, for most, the lived experience of human rights is far from it. Rights are bestowed and denied by governments across the globe. 

In the Commonwealth space, there are a variety of human rights violations which exist. These include laws which actively deny citizens their rights such as the trend of homophobic legislation in 41 of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth which criminalise same-sex activity. The sexual and reproductive health rights of young people are poorly reflected in national legislation with limited access to comprehensive sexuality education, youth friendly services, and safe, and legal abortion. In 11 Commonwealth countries, child marriage is a common practice with at least 30% of girls being married before the age of 18. In some countries, this number is as high as 50%. Young women are increasingly more vulnerable to poverty and violence with social norms restricting their ability to fully participate in society.

Youth comprise 60% of the Commonwealth population, yet youth voices are not reflected in political decision making processes. Youth not only lack political representation but spaces in which their voices and needs are respected. So what does the Facebook generation have to offer in the face of systemic gender inequality and the myriad of rights violations which plague Commonwealth countries?

We are a generation of smart phones, selfies and instant gratification. We are responsible for the rise and popularity of Justin Bieber, the Kardashians and Gangnam Style. Generation Y is perceived as the most self-centred generation of all time. I have often asked myself what future lies ahead for an apathetic and disengaged generation such as mine?

Sitting in a room with 35 delegates from around the world for the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network (CYGEN) Forum in Malta answered this question. There we were, young people who not only cared but who actively sought to better our communities despite a fear of violence, a lack of resources, and an unhealthy addiction to Facebook. I sat in a room with people who have fought for the rights of communities of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics in countries where same sex behaviour carries a prison sentence of 14 years. I sat in a room with people who have fought for the rights of girls to decide if, when, and whom they marry in cultures where the low status of girls has led to decades of forced marriages for girls under the age of 18. I sat in a room with people who advocate for the rights of girls and women around the world to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health in an increasingly hostile political climate which moralizes the female body.

Young people care about these issues and are actively working toward changing them.  We are not leaders of the future, but actors in the present. We hope that one day we will live in a world where human rights are not bestowed upon us but are a lived reality for all. The Commonwealth community is not often a sentiment we think of beyond our colonial past. However it is a political reality. As young people we came together to use this reality, and our experiences, to create a future we want and deserve. Hopefully, one day that will be an update I gladly share (and you hopefully like).

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.