Mogadishu – What’s a 27-year-old Sri Lankan woman doing in the middle of Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, a city rebuilding after many years of chaos and civil war?
In the case of Jayathma Wickramanayake, she’s doing her job.
Ms. Wickramanayake is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, charged with addressing the needs and rights of young people, and bringing the work of the world body closer to them – especially relevant tasks for Somalia, where young people under the age of 30 make up over two-thirds of the estimated population of over 12 million people.
“Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow, they are the champions of today. It’s important that I get out of UN Headquarters to hear first-hand their concerns – including in a place like Somalia, where youth have gone through so much and are still facing structural and institutional barriers to greater participation due to their age — and bring those concerns to the attention of the government, policy-makers and our UN teams on the ground,” she said about her visit, her first trip to an African country since she was appointed earlier this year.
Ms. Wickramanayake spent three days in the Somali capital engaged in a wide range of activities, including her participation in the second Somali National Youth Conference, a gathering of hundreds of youth representatives from all over the country that witnessed the launch of the Federal Government’s National Youth Policy on the opening day of the forum on 17 December.
“I’m here in Somalia to reassure the support of the United Nations to the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports, state ministries and the young people of Somalia,” the UN envoy said in her remarks to the conference. “The United Nations will always be with them in this journey of implementing their youth policy.”
Her visit to the Horn of Africa country is focusing renewed attention on issues of concern to young Somalis, including unemployment, illegal migration, insecurity and violent extremism.
The recently adopted National Youth Policy is aiming to address these challenges by removing institutional barriers to youth development. Ms. Wickramanayake urged young Somalis to pursue their goals and overcome the obstacles facing them.
“Time and time again, the young people of Somalia have proven to the world that they are resilient, that they have perseverance and they have the courage to come out of the pressing issues, challenges in their societies, in their communities,” she stated during her address.
The UN envoy also expressed sympathy with victims of the 14 October bomb attack in Mogadishu that claimed more than 500 lives, and she lauded humanitarian assistance initiatives by youth in support of the victims. She also urged young Somalis to use positive means to resolve their problems.
“The right to participation is the right of all young people,” she said. “We should keep demanding that space and when that space is there, we should make good use of that opportunity and make sure that our priorities and concerns are well reflected.”
Ms. Wickramanayake’s background makes her particularly well-suited to address the concerns of Somali youth. Prior to her appointment as the Secretary-General’s youth envoy, she was heavily involved in youth-related activities, including the launch of a movement for greater political and civic engagement of young people in her native Sri Lanka – a country which has suffered armed conflict and natural disasters in the recent past.
In her current role, she is expanding the UN’s engagement with youth and its advocacy efforts in the areas of sustainable development, human rights, peace and security and humanitarian action. “For us young people, peace is broader,” she said. “Peace is bigger. Peace is not just living without conflict. Peace is development, peace is being able to freely express ourselves. Peace is everything we do in our day-to-day lives and being able to do that without being restricted.”
In her closing remarks at the Somali National Youth Conference on Tuesday, the envoy shared three main findings from her stay in Mogadishu. Ms. Wickramanayake highlighted the unity demonstrated by the youth participants who came from all across the country, the fact that young people showed themselves to be the real peace-builders needed for Somalia’s future, and the strong desires of young Somalis to connect and share experiences with other youth from around the globe.
Describing the country’s young people as its “greatest asset,” she reassured the participants and the Somali Government of the world body’s ongoing support to ensure a brighter future for the country’s youth.
During her visit, the UN envoy’s other activities included meeting with a number of senior government officials, including Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, the Minister of Youth and Sport, Khadijah Mohammed Diriye and the Mayor of Mogadishu, Thabit Mohamed Abdi, as well as representatives of civil society, and senior UN officials.
She also met with a diverse range of young Somalis, including representatives of youth organizations and networks, the members of the newly established National Youth Council, representatives of women’s groups, and entrepreneurs participating in an innovation workshop supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).