The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is enabling a range of innovative, grassroots-led work around its goal on peace, justice, and inclusive societies (known as SDG16+). However, these actions and commitments of civil society at the national level are often overlooked in global-level discussions.
This uniquely collaborative event, Voices of SDG16+: Stories for Global Action, held during this year’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), had at its core a campaign that collected almost 200 video submissions of activists and changemakers working to put peace, justice, and inclusion into action. The creators of thirteen of the submissions were invited to speak at a July 11th event in New York, hailing from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Canada, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Somaliland, and Uganda.
The event was launched by Saferworld, TAP Network, and IPI along with campaign partners: Conciliation Resources, Article 19, Peace Direct, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS), World Vision, Justice for All, Pax Christi, Life and Peace Institute, and Namati, with thanks to the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the United Kingdom Department for International Development through the UN Development Programme’s Global Alliance for additional funding assistance.
In opening remarks, IPI Vice President Adam Lupel explained that this event “started as a vision among Saferworld, TAP Network, and IPI about the need to bring civil society leaders from around the world to New York to expand access for civil society at a time when we all recognize this space is shrinking.”
The first panel’s opening presentation featured Rudrani Dasgupta and Ramsha Baluch, both from Chai Ki Dukkaan in India and Pakistan. Growing up, the women were influenced by conflict narratives in school textbooks and in their communities. “Society and media told me to hate Pakistan, but the problem was, I just couldn’t,” said Ms. Dasgupta. It was when Ms. Dasgupta travelled to Pakistan for the first time that she saw for herself, “Pakistani people are not the enemy.”
During this trip, Ms. Dasgupta met Ms. Baluch, who was also questioning the hateful narrative towards India that she had been taught in class. “From our friendship was born… a democratic digital peacebuilding platform for Indians and Pakistanis to dialogue across borders,” Ms. Dasgupta continued. They asked the audience to send in messages about why India and Pakistan should reconcile by using #ChaiKiDukkaan. “We intend to bring peace to over a billion people, and for that we need collective action.”
Kate Flatley of the Women’s Justice Initiative in Guatemala said that the aim of her organization’s work was to increase access to justice for indigenous women. In order to do so, they trained community advocates to serve as first defense and support women in communities, in particular survivors of violence. She told the story of a survivor of domestic violence who participated in the women’s rights education program. As she grew more comfortable with the community, she began to speak up and to seek legal aid, said Ms. Flately, and was ultimately able to obtain a restraining order against her husband and title the land in her name.
“We can build safe homes and communities for women and girls,” Ms. Flatley asserted. “Access to justice can’t just mean providing legal services. You need to know the law to be able to use the law,” she said. “We have to ensure that we’re educating individuals on how they can begin to use the system to exercise those rights.”
Chhatra Amatya, a peacebuilder at Nagarik Aawaz in Nepal, explained that “Nagarik means citizen, and Aawaz means voice. I am in New York to bring the voice of the voiceless.” She told the audience that her organization was established in 2001, after the Nepalese royal massacre and the Maoist Insurgency (also known as the Nepalese Civil War). At this time, she said, “a lot of youth and women were displaced from their homes, they were homeless, they were suffering.” She reported that women on both sides of the conflict had been raped, and that the situation was “utter misery.”
She said four or five like-minded people felt that they must do something in a small way. “We tried to give them shelter by sponsorship,” she said. She sponsored two young people at the time and gave them a platform for monthly interaction where they would listen to stories from both sides of the civil war. “They realized after listening to the stories that they are [all], in fact, ‘the victim.’ It has nothing to do with the government side or the Maoist side,” she revealed. “That’s how we started a peace kitchen, where we feed them every week. It has been going on for 17 years.” She said she believed that “this can be replicated all over Nepal, and I can confidently say that it can be replicated all over the world.”
Asked how people in conflict-affected environments can transition “from revenge to reconciliation,” Narcisio Bangirana, Alternatives to Violence Project, Uganda, said that for him, the secret to accessing alternatives to violence is action on an individual level. Individuals, he said, “have the potential to address the conflicts around them using the natural resources within them.” His current work focused on the process of reconciling two rival ethnic groups in South Sudan: the Nuer and the Dinka. “We make them realize that actually they face the same challenges,” he said.
Tola Winjobi, of the Civil Society Coalition on Sustainable Development in Nigeria, gave background on his organization’s work to prevent human trafficking, smuggling of persons, violence against children, and gender-based violence. “We are especially concerned about those who have to travel through the frontiers of the West African communities. We are much more concerned for the young people that have to travel by road,” he said. “There’s a need [for our government] to do something about this situation in the country… Let us campaign vigorously against human trafficking, because it is an ill wind that does no one any good.”
Some of us have been working to build peace without even knowing it, according to Arlyssa Bianca Pabotoy from the Center for Peace Education in the Philippines. Her message for peace centered on the achievements of some Filipino women as inadvertent peacebuilders in their communities. She told the story of a night when she stood before two families who were ready to kill each other in the name of justice, until a crying mother held her ground and asked the others to think of the children before committing such an act.
“Her story is only one of the many stories of women, of mothers, who are at the forefront of peace and conflict,” Ms. Pabotoy said. “Without even knowing it, these women have put themselves at the frontlines of peace… leadership, decision making, peace processes, and negotiations.”
The event’s second panel was entitled “Next steps on SDG16+: how to bring the agenda forward and how civil society can be supported.” Ismail Farjar, from the Center for Policy Analysis, Somaliland, stressed the need to hold decision makers to account in his country to achieve Agenda 2030. He described the process of establishing an SDG16+ coalition, and said that in doing so, they were able to localize the SDGs, in part by translating the 17 goals into Somali. “The platforms we created help citizens to engage leaders and hold them accountable. For example, if politicians didn’t see people approaching them and asking, ‘why didn’t you do this?’ they wouldn’t do this.”
“The good thing,” he said, is that because of including the SDGs in Somaliland’s national development plan, it is “one of the few countries in Africa directly aligning with SDGs.” The next step, he continued, is to get “support so we can solve the access to justice issues and data issues.”
Justine Kumche, Women in Alternative Action NGO, Cameroon, underlined in her presentation that, “The WPS agenda and SDG16 enable each other.” The work of her organization was dedicated to women at the forefront of peacebuilding in Cameroon. “We have created the women’s peace initiative, which is an initiative that brings together wives of traditional leaders as community peacebuilders, and also princesses and female traditional leaders, to be able to drive the peace agenda at the level of the communities,” she explained
Although, she said, “we focus more on the prevention rather than reaction to violent or armed conflict… based on this, we carry out peace education programs at different levels.” These education programs, in part, consisted of summer classes for children that centered on peacebuilding solutions and coexistence. “We organize youth think tank clubs for peace,” she said. “We empower the youth to become youth champions for peace,” with focus on the language divisions of the country. She concluded by saying she was “sure that Cameroon cannot achieve SDG16 successfully if the issue of the Anglophone crisis is not resolved.”
Umulkheir Mohamed, Kesho Alliance, Kenya, addressed the “long periods of marginalization” in her region, and pointed out that idleness had proven to be a risk in her society. Youth, she said, were unemployed, stemming from a lack of education. Keeping youth informed ensured that they “understand their civic roles to fight the small challenges we have in our country—top of the list being corruption,” she said. “Our work has always been about sustainable development. I advocate for education and peace in my community,” she explained, “because when it comes to understanding leadership and government, even our educated youth are not equipped.”
Kasha Slavner founded the Global Sunrise Project in Canada “out of the need for an alternative narrative to the mainstream media,” she said. She described this initiative as a “media hub for social good.” She had felt that “what’s missing from the [mainstream media] narrative is the solutions, the fearless grassroots activists.” Through media, she said her aim was to fill the “awareness gap for young people. They know about issues… they know they want to do something, but they don’t have these languages or tools to act as a framework… Knowing about the SDGs they then have this information that they can take and personalize and act upon.”
Sophia Dianne Garcia took action in response to the dearth of young women’s perspectives in peacemaking decisions by coordinating a network of 38 young leaders in the Philippines. These women from vastly different backgrounds formed Young Women for Peace and Leadership to “advance principles of human rights, gender equality, and even youth participation.” The SDGs are inextricably linked, she said. “We believe SDG 16 can be achieved by giving so much importance to SDG 5, which is gender equality, that it should be at the center—it has synergies between all the SDGs.”
Ms. Garcia saw an opportunity to raise awareness among youth in the context of her country’s midterm elections. She said youth should know that “you have the right to make your voices count by voting. But it does not stop there, your civic duty is even beyond voting… You have to make your leaders accountable at the end of the day.” She concluded, “Through our activities, our initiatives, we hope to challenge the violent misogynist and indecent narratives present in Philippine politics,” and turn these into constructive narratives so youth can be active participants.
“[Being] affected by war stirred a passion in me to work for my community and bring a change,” said Sofia Ramyar, Afghans for Progressive Thinking, of her home country, Afghanistan. She emphasized that “if children are better at critical thinking, they will challenge the status quo, and they will reform arguments that are more peaceful… That’s how we built friendships and increase understanding.” Amid the country’s conflict environment, she said that she created programs that have “impacted over 20,000 youths in Afghanistan.”
Ms. Ramyar said that last year was the first time an Afghan representative to UN spoke on the role of youth. Asked how we could bring about change, Ms. Ramyar, concluded, “I believe the only way we can bring change is by providing a safe space for youth to come together, to talk with each other, decrease prejudices, and increase understanding. The only way we can do that is by promoting and advancing SDG16 for peace for Afghanistan.”
Jimena Leiva Roesch, IPI Senior Fellow and SDGs team lead, and Jordan Street, Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Saferworld moderated. John Romano, Coordinator of Transparency, Accountability, and Participation Network gave closing remarks, thanking Imagethink for providing a visual synthesis of the discussions.
To watch the winning video submissions and to read more about the campaign visit its website at: www.voicesofsdg16plus.org