'We want to have our voices out there' – Young women speak out at CSW68

Youth leaders from around the world have come together to discuss their vision for ending poverty and advancing gender equality at the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68) at the UN Headquarters in New York from 11 to 22 March. In this landmark election year, when 2.6 billion people are expected to cast their votes, young people – as voters, community members, and leaders – hold the power to demand higher investment in gender equality in countries, regions, and globally. 

Here are the voices from some young women leaders attending CSW68 and the annual Youth Forum, reflecting on their priorities, challenges, and hopes.

Key issues for youth at CSW68

Maka Chikowero, Zimbabwe-USA

“Girls are often seen as taking up space. Education is a tool for getting women and girls out of poverty, especially in the rural areas. I have seen the proof,” says Maka Chikowero. Nineteen-year-old Chikowero is the founder and president of MTC Educate A Girl Inc, an athlete, and a member of the UN Generation Equality Youth Task Force . “Investing in girls’ tertiary education and creating support systems for them is critical. Also, invest in grassroots organizations that are working with women and girls in poverty – they understand their needs and can address them in suitable ways.”

Maka Chikowero is the founder and president of MTC Educate A Girl Inc, an athlete, and a member of the UN Generation Equality Youth Task Force .
Maka Chikowero is the founder and president of MTC Educate A Girl Inc, an athlete, and a member of the UN Generation Equality Youth Task Force. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Stacey Mdala, Malawi

 “I believe that we are all working for the same goal. We want to have our voices out there,” says Stacey Mdala from Malawi.  Mdala is a women and youth rights advocate, passionate about girls’ education and community development. She is currently working with CARE International in Malawi and a member of the Youth Steering Committee for UN Women in the East and Southern Africa Region.

 “Youth advisory boards are very important. I didn't know this until I joined one. Our role is to advise [UN programming] on what youth are experiencing on the ground.  Sometimes you may make policies that you think are going to be in favour of the youth, but you don't know what is happening on the ground. When you're making policies and making these big decisions, we need youth voices.”

Stacey Mdala, youth activist from Malawi
Stacey Mdala is a women and youth rights advocate from Malawi, passionate about girls’ education and community development. She spoke at the opening of the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Alane T. Reis, Brazil

“Within the women’s movement we have to take intersectionality more seriously. We have to overcome inequalities among diverse groups of women to achieve gender equality,” is Alane T. Reis’s message. An activist and Coordinator of the Communication Program at Odara – Instituto da Mulher Negra, Reis is also the founder, Executive Coordinator and Content Editor at Revista Afirmativa, a feminist magazine in Brazil. 

“We need gender parity in leadership – not only in national political spaces, but also at the UN and in the corporate sector – invest in women leaders,” she added.

Alane T. Reis is a feminist activist from Brazil.
Alane T. Reis is a feminist activist from Brazil. Born in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, Reis grew up in the city of Cachoeira in Bahia, inspired by its history of Black resistance against slavery. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Dilanaz  Güler,  Türkiye

 “I would like to bring it to the attention of politicians and changemakers that artificial intelligence (AI) can only be good if you make it good. It's a means to an end and the end should always be about engaging meaningfully with youth and empowering women and girls and marginalized communities whose power has been taken away for so long. And if AI or the way that we use AI doesn't work, there must be channels to  critically alter it.”

 On meaningful youth participation,  Güler says, “ensure that youth have a say at the table, that they have a seat, but also have a microphone at that seat. We're not just observers.” Güler is an undergraduate student in Turkey and started her activism journey at 13, as a translator for anti-femicide organizations. She advises several entities in ensuring meaningful youth participation in multilateral systems and in countering digital violence.

Dilanaz  Güler, youth activist from Türkiye, interacting with other youth leaders at CSW Youth Forum.
Dilanaz  Güler, youth activist from Türkiye, interacting with other youth leaders at CSW Youth Forum. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown  

Investing in women means…

"Investing in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. In high schools and secondary schools, girl children are not encouraged to go into STEM. It would be great if the girls and women who are in STEM talked to kids in high school or in primary school, so that they know that this is possible. They don't have to stick to the traditional roles.” – Stacey Mdala, Malawi

“Providing women and girls with opportunities for the goals they have, but they may not have the finances and tools to achieve them, and providing grassroots organizations a seat at the table.” – Maka Chikowero, USA-Zimbabwe

“Investing in access to day care for poor Black women so that they can leave their children in a safe place and go to work. The Black women’s movement has been fighting for access to free day care for children, which benefits the poorest women, who are Black women in Brazil.” – Alane T. Reis, Brazil

Anzhelika Bielova is a Roma activist from Zaporizhzhia, southern Ukraine, and works in Western Ukraine.
Anzhelika Bielova is from Zaporizhzhia, southern Ukraine, and works in the country's southeastern and western regions. As a Roma woman, she believes that investing in women must include investing in Roma women leaders and activists. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

An issue that you are passionate about

Increasing young Black women’s representation in media – Alane T. Reis, Brazil

“Young Black girls don’t see themselves in media, and as a result, they don’t think they are capable to be in certain spaces. Seeing Black women in media shows to young black girls that they don’t have to limit their dreams. When there is a more diverse representation of society in the media, everyone learns and benefits from it. Media, like politics, needs to reflect the same diversity that makes up our societies.”

Starting difficult conversations about gender-based violence in the Roma community – Anzhelika Bielova, Ukraine

“I know how difficult it is to be a Roma woman, because we face discrimination outside the community, but also inside the community because it is one of the communities that has a patriarchal culture. There are a lot of women who don't have education, proper accommodation, or living conditions, and they are the most vulnerable”

“One of my priorities is combatting gender-based violence. It’s a taboo topic in the Roma community. I personally faced an attempted femicide in 2019. I was attacked by a man with a knife at the entrance of my home.”

 Bielova survived the attack and was determined: “I knew that I had to make this world safer for girls and women, for my own daughter. At the time, she was only four months old.”

 “My goal is to start this difficult conversation [about gender-based violence] within the Roma community and develop long-term solutions.”

Ending period poverty – Maka Chikowero

“Young women and girls are missing out on life because of their period. They are having to stop going to work, school, sporting events, take leadership opportunities, because they don’t have access to menstrual products that they need.”

Period poverty makes rural girls drop out of school, says Chikowero, who started her own organization, MTC, to help rural Zimbabwean girls access education, sport, and [develop] their leadership skills.

Jemiah Whitney Prince, Trinidad and Tobago

“A society should reflect its demographic. Women should be present in both leadership and political roles. And, in society we have norms, and norms are established through practices. Norms are really learned behaviour. The sooner we get young women to appreciate that this is the norm, and they are the active agents establishing it, whether their decision occurs in the political sphere or non-political sphere, I want that to be normalized.”

Prince says, having the relevant infrastructures and institutions that promote women’s participation is critical . “When there's access to daycare, when there's access to the right to be educated… those things help women access leadership roles.” Conversely, “the lack of mentors holds young women back from going further:, she adds.

Jemiah Prince,  attorney-at-law and civil society representative based in Trinidad and Tobago
Jemiah Prince, 27, is an attorney-at-law, based in Trinidad and Tobago. She brings her legal background to her civil society work. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Their hopes...

“Hope is seeing girls flourish at the things they are good at. Hope is working towards shared goals with many other young people here at CSW.” – Maka Chikowero, USA-Zimbabwe

“It is [hopeful] when men are also for gender equality, when they understand its value, because this is not only about women, it is also about men.” Anzhelika Bielova, Ukraine

“To see that people are still fighting for a better future. They're fighting for their seats at the table. They're fighting for, essentially, to wake up and have the rights that the Human Rights Declaration has promised us.” – Dilanaz  Güler, Türkiye