Nafesha Richardson’s “advocacy journey” began at the early age of seven. A Girl Guide at the time, she was learning about various social issues, one of which was the high rates of sexual and domestic violence in her country, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
“As a seven year old, it was astonishing to me to think that there were women and girls out there who were being abused,” she explains. “As I grew up, I realised I was in a position of privilege and I wanted to help people who don’t necessarily have a voice.”
Seeing that there was a limited space in St Vincent and the Grenadines for young people to speak up, at the age of 22, Richardson founded an organisation called Spark SVG.
Spark SVG’s aim is to inspire and empower young people to ignite positive change in their communities. Each year, using the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, they host a youth summit bringing together young people and inspiring speakers and influencers to discuss and debate opportunities for change.
St Vincent and the Grenadines is a small island country in the Caribbean, home to around 110,000 people. Richardson and her organisation are addressing a range of issues affecting the country ranging from high rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence, including a lack of access to health and legal support.
Additionally, they fight for gender equality, climate justice and youth participation and leadership.
She and her colleagues also conduct advocacy work around access to education. She explains that many young people in the country stop their schooling at secondary level, often facing financial issues at home and having to work to help support their families.
“Here and in many other countries around the world, young people are forced to carry enormous burdens and problems at too young an age,” says Richardson. “We’re not really given the chance to be young and free and to make mistakes.”
Equal access to education is critical, says Richardson, so that young people can enjoy and embrace their youth.
“I see too many young people around me who are forced to grow up early – they have to look after younger siblings, they may have abusive parents, or they may have to work,” she says. “But if the right systems are in place to prioritise education, we can focus on the things we should be focusing on.”
Meaningful engagement of youth is crucial
In April this year, St Vincent and the Grenadines was struck by a volcanic eruption, displacing around 20,000 people. Richardson describes how quickly young people rushed to the scene to help. The day after the eruption, she said, young people were there seeing how they could get food and water to the affected communities, and offering support and resources to “people who had lost their homes, livestock and way of life.”
But while authorities welcomed youth involvement in this crisis and others, Richardson says it’s the next stage – decision-making – where youth voices are critically lacking.
“We’re either left out, or we’re not considered,” she explains. “There is a real gap in terms of the action we take and our abilities, and the people in charge not taking us seriously. In order to recover better from all of these issues that we are facing, young people need to be continuously and meaningfully engaged.”
Overcoming the obstacles
Finding the space to speak, being able to speak to the people taking decisions, or securing funding to run an activity are all challenges Richardson and other young advocates face regularly. They are often perceived as “too young, too aggressive, or as not understanding the system,” she explains.
But while Richardson says the obstacles to being a young person in leadership in St Vincent and the Grenadines are many, and that the world of advocacy can often be lonely, she stresses that the challenges are not insurmountable.
She describes her strong support system and the “amazing” team of volunteers who help her go out every day and give her the “I can do this” feeling. She also says that seeing people directly benefitting from her work provides her a “continuous reminder to keep on going and keep pushing.”
Young people need to understand their rights
One of Richardson’s main goals is to encourage young people to learn and understand their rights in order that they can stand up for them.
“When you don’t know and understand what your rights are, you can’t function effectively as a member of our society,” she says. “This is the gateway to the ability to express yourself freely, to be who you are and to be treated fairly, no matter the colour of your skin, or your age, or religion, who you want to love, or what you choose to wear.”
Although she stresses that she doesn’t think people should have to be advocates too early, she believes it is important that they are taught about their rights from a young age.
“We are born with these rights, and we carry them our entire lives,” she says. “Don't be afraid to speak up and say: I have a right to education, I have a right to a safe environment. I have a right to wear what I want to wear or do whatever I want to do.”
“Because at the end of the day, we're all people, we're all equal.”
Spark SVG’s third annual youth summit will be held virtually on 21 and 22 August 2021, and is open to young people around the world aged 18-30.
Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
12 August 2021