The power of youth: a conversation with youth advocate Natasha Wang Mwansa

by Priscilla Pangan, CNNTD Youth Ambassador for Women Deliver 2019

If you were at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference you have likely heard of Natasha Wang Mwansa. During the conference’s opening plenary, the 18-year-old youth advocate from Zambia gave an electrifying speech which earned a standing ovation from heads of state, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and more than 8,000 conference delegates.  Two weeks after the Women Deliver, Natasha continues to make international headlines. Now that is the power of youth action.

Natasha brought this same energy to a panel discussion hosted by Uniting to Combat NTDs at the Women Deliver conference.  This time, she lent her voice and youth perspective to a conversation about interventions to address neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and how they impact the lives of women and girls in the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities. I sat down with her afterwards to chat more about progress towards elimination and control of NTDs, the role of youth in this work, and tackling gender inequities overall. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Q: How did you get started in youth advocacy?

A: For me it was a very interesting journey. I was always the youngest and smallest in my class and was constantly bullied. At first I couldn’t really stand up for myself. One day I decided that it was too much and I started speaking up. My voice was my greatest defence.

As time went by, my dad would share news stories with me and I would read about amazing women, like Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama. I followed their work closely and was so inspired. So I joined my school’s the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientists or JETS club, I did debate club, I would win school awards. It all started from this place of self-discovery, but I knew I could do more.

An advocacy organization came to our school and they wanted young people to take part. I thought, why not? It could go bad, it could go well – but either way, I should do it. I was the first young person they had on board. They picked me, and that was very empowering. After getting exposure to human rights and children’s health and rights work through them, I decided I was all in.

Q:  What advice would you give to young people who would want to go down this path?

My message is that not everyone has a platform or is able to use their voice, but all it takes is one person to start. From there, it can’t be just me or just you who makes an impact. Collectively, we can and we will. Youth need to come into the power that we have. It starts at home. Talk to your parents, talk to other people. We need to get information. And once we understand, demand. We’re all powerful in our own capacities, unique in our own ways, and we can and should use that to change the world.

Q:  Let’s talk about neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). As we know, NTDs are lacking in attention. Working in advocacy, it can be so hard to deal with apathy, and it can be really tough to get people to care. What do you think youth advocacy can bring to the table? How do you think youth can engage people?

I often think of this example: a while back, when the global community approached sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, our leaders would call for changes around rates of HIV and AIDS and they would talk about misinformation and the lack of sex education among young people … and they would stop there. The only time we saw improvements made was when young people decided enough was enough; when they themselves became the advocates, and made moves to influence the decision-making process.

Young people need to take up more space, inasmuch as we’re facing barriers like lack of resources and stigma around the health issues we face. We need to talk to each other and help each other realize that what is happening with NTDs is not right, and that these issues affect youth.

Honestly, someone who’s 16 or 18 years old is way more likely to listen to me than someone who’s a lot older because we relate, right? I believe young people should stand up because we have to be the voice for the voiceless and it’s only us that can help each other out.

Q: I’ve been thinking about the powerful platform that Women Deliver offers. Despite the fact that I am from Canada and you are from Zambia, we’ve been able to come together and have this conversation, young person to young person. How do we keep these connections sustained? How can we maintain this momentum across distance and borders, and ensure action beyond the conference?

That’s a very important question and it’s something I think about often as well. After all this, what happens with us? Do we all just forget? There’s no excuse for it to end here. We have all these networks – we’ve got social media, we’ve got different ways to interact and communicate. It needs to start with us. We walk away from these conferences with partnerships that have the potential to change realities for women, girls, and young people. If we have the will and we hold each other accountable, we can make it happen.

Q: And finally, any words on the #beatNTDs movement, youth advocacy overall, and how important and central those things are to achieving gender equality?

Firstly, young women and girls have so much power and potential. Since young women and girls are affected by these diseases, we need to make sure they are equipped to face the challenges that come with them. NTDs should not be neglected any longer. We can’t be silent. Just because NTDs affect one fifth of the world, doesn’t mean they don’t affect all of us. It just takes one person who is affected to have the whole community around them feel the effects. It doesn’t have to be big for it to be a problem. And the solutions are there!

It’s time to use our voices. Young people have so much power, potential and energy. We can’t let it go to waste!

About the author: Priscilla Pangan is a Project Officer with the Canadian Society for International Health.  She is passionate about global health, development and gender equality and she is particularly interested in social determinants of health.