Tahere Siisiialafia has been “invested in human rights” since she was a child. At the age of ten, she was already actively partaking in community activities. As a teenager, she conducted empowerment classes for children and junior young people in her community, and participated in national youth forums and the Samoan youth parliament.
Today, at age 31, she is president of the Pacific Youth Council, an organisation which works to foster and promote the interests and needs of young people in the Pacific. She now represents Pacific youth internationally, speaking at various UN events, including recently the Intersessional Seminar on Youth and Human Rights.
We spoke to Tahere about the human rights issues in the region, why young peoples’ voices are so critical, and her vision for a better future for youth.
What would you define as some of the biggest issues facing young people in the Pacific today?
There are so many issues confronting young people, and so many issues for which we need to advocate. A lack of access to quality education and healthcare are two of the major ones.
Then there is employment. Young people are five times less likely to get jobs than older people. Even before COVID-19 hit, the youth unemployment rate in the Pacific was 23 percent.
Those who were employed were impacted by lockdown restrictions. With young people often the main breadwinners, families and entire communities have been drastically affected and livelihoods are in the balance.
How is the escalating threat of climate change in the Pacific affecting human rights?
Climate change is profoundly affecting the social wellbeing of people in the Pacific. In this part of the world, we live off the land and the sea. Most families still fish from the ocean and eat from their own plantations or gardens.
Climate change is threatening our food source, our basic means of survival.
We cannot continue to label climate change as a separate issue. It cuts right across everything and as it worsens, it will deeply impact our rights to education, healthcare, employment, food – just everything.
Why is youth participation so crucial to address these issues?
At a time where we are encountering new waves of issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing dangers of climate change, youth participation is becoming ever more critical.
We need to meaningfully explore young people’s aspirations, and aim for a more genuine understanding of how they are taking action on issues that matter to them.
If young people are present in key political spaces – nationally, regionally and internationally – we will eventually be able to be involved in decision-making processes. Youth perspective and voices will then contribute to real and sustainable change.
Are young people being listened to?
We often talk about deeply embedded cultural barriers and hierarchies that impede us from standing up for our rights. However, the reality is that in our culture, youth are actually valued and considered important in our communities.
The issue is that we don’t have a role within decision-making processes and this is a socio-cultural aspect that cannot change overnight. What we need is to develop and build our own cultural competency so we can best navigate around cultural barriers.
In the last decade, I’ve personally seen that youth voices are becoming louder, and we’re becoming more heard. There are more spaces – such as forums and policy consultations – where young people are actively partaking.
But the problem is – we don’t just want our voices heard. We need more than that. We continue to say: “we need you to invest in us tangibly.” We really need to remove this culture of tokenism, of ticking boxes, and move towards a far more meaningful and genuine engagement of youth. This will help us take more concrete action.
Having our voices heard meets the objectives of an agenda on paper; but when you literally ‘invest’ in our efforts and the work we actually do on the ground, you not only amplify the aspirations of youth, but you become ten times more likely to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
What kind of future do you envisage for Pacific youth?
I have a strong belief that our young people have so much potential. We have a spirit of service to our communities, which I hope we can only continue to strengthen.
We need to create the conditions for young people to be able to understand their rights. Most imperatively, there should be a balance between our rights and privileges, and our duties and responsibilities; this is very key especially in very cultural societies like in the Pacific. This balance is vital to understanding the role of youth, the importance of youth engagement in the Pacific, and in achieving our goals.
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.
7 June 2021