You are the change

As a girl growing up in Kenya, a patriarchal society with a strong cultural heritage, I knew from the onset that achieving my goals was not going to be a walk in the park. Most of the time, I often considered myself a coward for the decisions I made. Many of the decisions I made as a young woman meant being cautious and taking preventive measures to avoid the social, economic and cultural issues that affected women in my society.

We were taught in school that conflict is natural but violence is not. Violence against women and girls in my community seemed natural, commonplace, normal. I witnessed friends and women in my extended family experience violence, including economic violence, and suffer the consequence of this violence, and I watched it affect their social, mental, and physical well-being. Others struggled with low self-esteem, poverty, disabilities, or mental health complications related to the violence they experienced.

This is why I chose to play an active role in my community to support women and girls by working towards violence prevention. I did this by taking the bull by its horns. I worked with children, youth groups and adults alike, championing human rights, social justice and gender equality in my community and later in broader society. I made friends and enemies alike but the message was clear. I was a force to reckon with, a girl who had grown into a young woman in a not so supportive society who wanted the world to be different for other girls.

My passion, courage, and commitment to improve the situation of the most vulnerable members of our society — women and girls — catapulted me to the international platform. The opportunity to represent my country in international policy forums and taking up leadership roles in regional and international youth networks and organizations afforded me the opportunity to influence young change makers and global leaders. Over the years, I have seen more young women — from Kenya to Rwanda, Madagascar to India — take up leadership roles and join in the spirit of championing a violence free society for women and girls.

Today, I am proud to have founded an organization that champions sustainable peace and promote violence prevention among youth in local communities. Young women have immense potential in them to create change which will have a ripple effect in their community. So many times, all it takes is courage and confidence to take the first leap. Having served as a young woman youth advocate leading from the front, I believe that everyone can be a changemaker. My advice to young women around the world is this: trust yourself, take the first step, and make it happen the best way you know how. You are the change your community needs. You are the change we need in this world.

#YoungWomenSay is a collaboration between Say It Forward and The Torchlight Collective in support of International Youth Day (#IYD2016). This campaign features blogs from incredible young women from around the world about their experiences overcoming adversity.

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Yvonne Bellys Akoth

Yvonne Bellys Akoth is a peace advocate and a violence prevention strategist. She is also a Generation Change Fellow of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and a Post2015 Ambassador of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). Yvonne runs a local non-profit organization ‘Impart Change,’ that focuses on championing sustainable peace and promoting violence prevention among youth, with special focus on girls and young women in local communities. As a peace advocate, she has sat in various global committees that include the World Health Organization – Violence Prevention Alliance (WHO-VPA) and contributed in the development of a global non-formal educational curriculum ‘Voices against Violence’, a partnership project between WAGGGS and UN Women. Yvonne has been an official youth delegate representing Kenya and Africa in numerous regional and global conferences, and selected a key speaker and a panellist in global events such as the 1st Global Forum on Youth Policies in Azerbaijan, the 2nd World Human Rights Forum in Morocco, Open Square Summit in Washington and the 2015 United Nations ECOSOC Youth Forum in New York, USA. Yvonne is an avid campaigner of a violence free society and would like to see more girls and young women participate in sustainable peace and development initiatives.