Shakeeb Ahmed Khan, UN Youth Volunteer physiotherapist, and Sangboi, a local volunteer, provide balancing training to Elizabeth Chawngzamawi, a child with cerebral palsy. (UNV, 2014)

UNV official message for International Youth Day 2014

Today, on International Youth Day 2014, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme joins the world in celebrating the role of young women and men as partners for positive change. Please join us in celebrating the millions of young volunteers around the world who, whatever their circumstances, are doing their share, and more, to improve the lives of those around them.

Today, on International Youth Day 2014, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme joins the world in celebrating the role of young women and men as partners for positive change. Watch UNV's video to mark International Youth Day 2014 This year, Youth Day is addressing the issue of Youth and Mental Health with the slogan “Mental Health Matters”. Research shows that people who volunteer experience a sense of well-being which is an aspect of mental health. Some of the values associated to well-being, such as solidarity, passion for a cause and wanting to give back to society are common to volunteerism.

The UNV 2011 State of the World's Volunteerism Report devotes a chapter to examine "well-being and how volunteerism impacts on it." It cites the 2009 report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, also known as the Stiglitz Commission, that ”considers well-being as the ultimate goal of development”. Volunteerism has the power to transform the lives of young people. After all, it inspires and engages, builds confidence, teaches new skills and expands our horizons. Due to poverty, violence and post-conflict trauma, gender, identity or disability, millions of youth worldwide are suffering from marginalization and exclusion, and these youth are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. For them the positive effects of volunteerism can be especially profound.

For this Youth Day UNV is drawing special attention to those young people who, through volunteerism,  are enjoying the mental health benefits, sense of accomplishment and inclusion that volunteering brings. Their stories remind us that no matter where we come from, or what our identity, religion, gender or age, we all, as individuals, have the power to change the world. For more than 40 years, UNV has worked in partnership with governments, civil society, the private sector, and academia to advocate for youth volunteerism, create enabling environments for it, and mobilize youth volunteers.

The road has been long, and progress slow. In many countries young people lack even the rights to become volunteers. In others, inadequate frameworks exist to ensure that volunteer assignments are safe, fair, and accessible to all. But we have also seen successes.  In Burkina Faso, an innovative partnership between the Ministry of Youth and Employment, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNV led to the development of the first national law on volunteerism in West Africa, and a national volunteer scheme which mobilized more than 13,000 youth volunteers to support national development. The scheme included more than a thousand young volunteer teachers who served in classrooms that otherwise would have been closed for lack of staff. Burkina Faso’s law provided a model for similar laws in Togo and Mali, while its national volunteer programme was the basis for those developed in Senegal and Burundi.

UNV also helped establish a regional framework to enable the exchange of young volunteers between countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), enabling critical skills transfer and the strategic filling of gaps in public services. Specifically, in Liberia UNV helped establish a National Youth Volunteer Service that invested in youth as agents promoting peace and social cohesion at the community level, thus enhancing the reweaving of the social fabric and developing a sense of purpose among young Liberians contributing to the peace process.

In the Arab region, UNV’s ground-breaking regional volunteering programme builds trust and facilitates dialogue between young people and governments in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions. In Vietnam, UNV supported the creation of a national institution for the promotion and management of youth volunteerism that enables rural youth to access skills development and training through volunteerism. Following the devastation of tropical storm Ida in November 2009, in a unique, triangular South-South partnership between the governments of Brazil and El Salvador and UNV, the project ‘Living Schools’ mobilized Brazilian volunteers to help thousands of El Salvadoran youth to deal with natural disasters, climate change adaptation and food security. From 2011 to 2012, the Brazilian volunteers taught El Salvadoran youth about agronomy, health, nutrition, risk management, gender and education.

During a subsequent tropical storm, many young people who were undertaking the training volunteered to construct temporary shelters for more than 500 people, carry out landslide risk assessments, and distribute food. UNV and the Government of Brazil are currently exploring the possibility of partnering on a second phase of the programme and possibly scaling it up to Central America. Throughout these regions, youth volunteers are also taking remarkable steps to improve the lives of persons with disabilities.

Twenty-five-year-old UN Youth Volunteer Giulia David, funded by the Government of Italy, works for the inclusion of children with disabilities in the public education system in Tunisia, and is fighting to raise awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities, especially the right to education. She is also participating to build the capacity of teachers, training them to use best practices for including pupils with disabilities. Her mission contributes to the UN partnership to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in Tunisia. According to Giulia, “In Tunisia there are a lot of challenges to face in order to break the existing stereotypes and to ensure that persons with disabilities fully enjoy their rights. Thankfully I see that the situation is evolving thanks to the action of ministries, public institutions, civil society and persons with disabilities themselves. This gives me the motivation to continue on my work.” In Churachandpur, a remote tribal district of Manipur, India, services for persons with disabilities are limited. Few trained rehabilitation professionals or centres exist, especially in rural areas, and this places an especially heavy burden on disabled children most in need of support.

Four national UN Youth Volunteers are helping to bridge this gap by collaborating with the local community to run a school—the Malsawm Initiative (TMI)—for children with special needs. The volunteers are training teachers and parents in the school in caring for children with special needs, and promoting the role of the local community in this process. Inspired by their work, community members have volunteered their services and time and, as a result, 25 children with disabilities now have access to education and professional support. According to Pauzagin Tonsing, Secretary of the Centre for Community Initiative (a part of the Malsawm Initiative), “To our amazement, ever since the UN Volunteers have been with us, parental and community response has progressed positively and now we frequently have parents seeking … admission for their children [from] time to time.”Vietnamese Community Volunteer Vuong Thi Dung, 22, has been tutoring children in mathematics, Vietnamese and English for five years. 

Due to a rare spinal condition, Dung teaches more than 50 students, either sitting or lying in her bed. “With my ability to help others, I don’t feel like I am a disabled person. Every day, my life is so meaningful,” says Dung. In Dung’s case, volunteerism has not only helped to break the stereotypes that prevent her full participation in society, but it has also given her life meaning and direction. To further improve their assistance to victims of human trafficking, the Serbian NGO ASTRA Anti Trafficking Action tasked two UN Online Volunteers, mobilized through UNV’s Online Volunteering service, with researching and summarizing best practices in the therapeutic treatment of this target group. The online volunteers compiled practical guides containing actionable treatment recommendations. “Being accustomed to a high level of professional activity I found the life of a solitary PhD student rather frustrating, so I began looking for opportunities to dedicate my extra time to something important,” said Lucija Zigrovic from Croatia. The guides were also disseminated during a seminar for lawyers who represent victims of human trafficking to enhance their insight into their psychological situation. On International Youth Day 2014, please join us in celebrating the millions of young volunteers around the world who, whatever their circumstances, are doing their share, and more, to improve the lives of those around them.  We owe them our thanks not only for their actions, but for their perseverance, idealism and optimism. They truly are an inspiration to us all.

Bonn, Germany