As part of a five-nation visit in Africa, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, was on an official mission in The Gambia on 5 and 6 February. The visit provided an opportunity for the envoy to engage closely with young people in the country, and learn about the challenges they face and solutions being developed on the ground. The visit, on the one hand, recommended to policymakers the need to improve the institutional capacity of empowering young people, and on the other hand, encouraged young people on the need to contribute to society through hard work and innovation.
On 5 February, the envoy spoke at the opening of a two-day International Forum on Developing Strategies to eliminate female genital mutilation. The forum was convened to commemorate the International Day on Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on 6 February. With more than 200 million young girls and women having experienced some form of genital mutilation, Ms Wickramanayake called this harmful practice “…unacceptable in the 21st century”. Consequently, she emphasised the need for countries to do more – calling for strengthening of legal frameworks to address the harmful practice, and provide care and protection services for those who have undergone cutting. Ending harmful practices, particularly FGM, is at the core of the work of the United Nations. The youth envoy called on all stakeholders to rally behind the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, where target 5.3 of Goal No. 5 looks at ending all harmful practices by 2030, including female genital mutilation.
Following the forum, Ms Wickramanayake visited the Gambia Shongai Initiative (GSI) – an agricultural development and production centre in Chamen, Gambia that provides training and by extension take-off grants that offer young farmers a chance to start their own micro-agricultural ventures. During the visit, she got a chance to experience first hand the facilities and see the agricultural produce coming out of the centre, as well as interacting with young people benefiting from the skills development and training provided. In addition, the youth envoy took part in a ceremony awarding certificates to more than 30 young people graduating from the centre.
She commended the Gambian Government, represented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Youth and Sport, for investing in youth skills development and encouraged young people to utilise the facilities and resources provided by platforms such as the Shongai Initiative Centre to be productive and realise their potential.
On 6 February, Ms Wickramanayake held bilateral meetings with high level members of the government including the president and vice President together with the Speaker and Members of the National Assembly.
Meeting the vice president, Ms Wickramanayake championed a message of empowerment for young girls and recognised the impact the vice president has in shaping and changing the lives of young people, particularly young girls. As part of this audience, the youth envoy delivered a joint statement on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, issued by the executive directors of UNFPA and Unicef on 6 February.
At the National Assembly, she called on the Speaker who convened a short roundtable with members of the assembly representing the women and youth standing committees. Ms Wickramanayake shared a message on investing in education and empowering young girls and women. She further noted that one of the biggest investments a nation can make is in its young people. On their part, members of the assembly welcomed the visit and extended an invitation for partnership.
President Adama Barrow met with Ms Wickramanayake after the launch of the Gambia Development Plan. Expressing his appreciation for the visit, the president shared a background on his story and cited the support moral and emotional support he received from his elders as key element that empowered him take on the challenge of leadership. She thanked The Gambia for its leadership in the region on youth development and commended the president on committing to invest in “harnessing the demographic dividend” as part of the newly launched National Development Plan (2018 – 2021). The president reaffirmed that young people are a top priority in his administration.
In addition to the high level bilateral meetings, the youth envoy also attended a meeting on the Gambia Youth Empowerment Project where she spoke on a panel with a number of stakeholders, including the UN Resident Coordinator in The Gambia. Young people at the meeting spoke about skills development and investment in capacity building programmes in the agribusiness sectors. In her remarks, the envoy noted that in a changing world where new job skills are needed, countries must continue investing skills development for changing labour spaces.
In concluding her visit to the country, the Gambia National Youth Council organised a town hall meeting between Ms Wickramanayake and young people from the University of Gambia. Through a moderated exchange, the envoy responded to a number of questions from the audience. These touched on a number of themes, including migration, human trafficking, peace and security, and expanding youth participation at national and international levels, particularly for young people in the global south.