Aya Chebbi, African Youth Envoy, Nalafem Collective

Aya Chebbi on the power of youth-led movements and being the first African Union Special Envoy on Youth

Aya Chebbi is a multi award-winning Pan-African feminist. She rose to prominence as a voice for democracy and shot to global fame as a political blogger during 2010-11 Tunisia’s Revolution. She received the 2019 Gates Foundation Campaign Award and was named in Forbes’ Africa’s 50 Most Powerful Women and New African Magazine List of 100 Most Influential Africans. Her story and talks have been critically acclaimed by the Guardian, Huffpost, Jeune Afrique, France24, Deutsche Welle and more.  

Can you tell us about your upbringing in Tunisia?

I am a product of public education in Tunisia; I studied my primary, secondary, and college in Tunisia. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from university in Tunisia and later went on to do a Master’s degree in 2015 in African politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

I am an only child to a very conservative family—especially my mother and her family—but both my parents’ families are very conservative. But my father, spent 40 years in the Tunisian Army, is very supportive. I’ve been moving from one city to another in Tunisia with him. I’ve been to lots of different cities in Tunisia and I’ve lived in about eight different cities and studied in different schools because of his work. Being a nomad, being able to integrate in different cultures and diversity of our country from north to south to east to west also contributed to who I am today. I am very blessed to have grown like that, to be able to meet different people from different parts of Tunisia and understand my country’s diversity which helped me to respect diversity as I grew up.

You became known globally after blogging during the 2010/2011 Tunisian Revolution. What role did young people play in the Revolution and what were their demands?

The revolution in Tunisia was a youth-led movement that toppled Ben Ali. Young people were at the frontlines of the struggle, mobilizing and protesting. They faced police brutality and sacrificed their lives in many cities across Tunisia. Our movement emerged through decentralized grassroots participation, challenging the notion of a “ youth movement” that is homogenous. Instead, we represented many different interests and goals. While some of us have chosen to participate in traditional politics, others have found other ways to meaningfully construct the country’s future.

Our demands were: freedom, social justice and jobs with dignity. It has always been a revolution of dignity, for economic justice. Young women like myself have taken to the streets, unafraid to die for freedom. When I reflect on the past nine years, I recognise the boldness of my generation which shaped its own destiny and that of future generations. The efforts and sacrifices of young women left our mark upon dignity and equality, which ought not to go unrecognised. Our experiences have not gone unnoticed, and we continue to be on the front lines.

You served as the first ever African Union Special Envoy on Youth. What kinds of issues did you advocate for on the world stage and what were the key priorities on the youth agenda in Africa?

With 65% of Africa’s population being under the age of 30, I represented not only the most youthful population in the world, but the most innovative, best educated and the coolest generation. As a generation of change-makers, we want to see and shape a new model of leadership in Africa. The issues faced by the African youth are very complex as most youth are marginalised, unemployed and insecure of the political landscapes which they occupy.

In Africa, we ended up with a generation in waithood – waiting for adulthood, unable to achieve its financial freedom because of inequality. Especially when we show the intersections of class, gender, race, and other relations of power. Africa hosts the largest refugee and migrant populations. Look at the digital divide, 75% of Africa is offline. Yet, Africa has enough valuable natural resources to empower everybody, including women and the youth, if resources are distributed in an equitable way. But youths are dying in the Mediterranean and recruited to violent extremism as an alternative.

Intergenerational co-leadership has been at the core of my advocacy during my mandate as African Union Youth Envoy because there is still an urgent need to center youth voices in shaping the policies that affect their lives. We cannot keep inheriting systems which we didn’t co-create, we are agents of change, and need to be given seats at the table, and to actively shape our realities, without discrimination or tokenism.

Can you talk a bit about the Youth Silencing the Guns Campaign?

 The root cause of many conflicts is illiteracy, marginalization and lack of equal opportunities. To address security, leaders need to deal with the soul issues. Militarization is only a response. It doesn’t deal with prevention or transformation.

Why is youth inclusion in peacebuilding so important?

Many youth’s lives have been disrupted due to wars, and conflicts. Young women, in particular have been the most affected.  Young men and women have always been part of peacebuilding processes, however their contributions have been erased and pushed from the mainstream historical narratives. In fact,  with the Africa Young Women Beijing+25 Manifesto, a political and feminist document co-created with 1500 young women and men from 44 African countries, we, as young women, demand the institutionalization of our participation in peacebuilding efforts with documenting these contributions. We cannot afford to move ahead without accentuating on the work that has been done on the ground.

Youth inclusion in peacebuilding can also ensure that funds are allocated to the appropriate youth-led and grassroot bodies. Young women peacebuilders and organisations and specific young women programmes lead with intersectional approaches, bridging between youth, Peace and Security and Women peace and Security agendas. We all want an Africa that is Conflict-Free.

Can you tell us about the work of the Nala Feminist Collective? What are the 10 key demands?

I have been delighted to recently launch at the Generation Equality Forum the Nala Feminist Collective, which is a Pan-African group of 17 feminists with a mission to foster, enable and mobilize young women from Africa and Diaspora. The Nala council which drives the advocacy of the manifesto is made up of powerful women such as Environmental activist Vanessa Nakate, Economist & Former Minister Ms. Bogolo J. Kenewendo, UNHCR ambassador, Emtithal Mahmoud, Miss Universe 2019, Zozibini Tunzi, among others women leaders. Our demands as African Young women are as follows: Economic Justice Demand, Criminalization of Gender-Based Violence,  Ending Gender Discrimination, Access to Justice and Protection,  Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Inclusive and Equitable Education, Digital justice, Silencing the Guns and Intergenerational Co-leadership. These intersecting demands which Africa’s young women are asking for have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, none of these issues stands alone.

Our presence at the Generation Equality Forum last week was an emphasis that gender equality cannot be achieved without Africa, and without Africa’s young women. We are calling for change and emerging as a united voice. Eventually, 8 out of 10 of these demands were incorporated into Action Coalitions’ commitments. We believe that funds must be channeled to the grassroots in order for gender equality to be achieved.

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