More than 6,000 people were in Kigali for the Women Deliver conference last month, including four heads of state, donors, policy makers and, importantly, activists from almost every country in the world.
The discussions at the conference focus on a wide range of issues based around advancing gender equality. Health in general was, of course, a focus, as were sexual and reproductive health specifically.
But two gaps were obvious in the conversations. There was very little youth representation. And there was minimal discussion about the role of food or food systems.
While these two topics might seem separate, they are in fact closely connected.
Anything for young people without young people is against young people
Young people have a lot of good ideas and are excellent at challenging the status quo. If you spend any time with children, you already know their capacity for asking unexpected questions. And their ability to keep asking Why? until they are satisfied. Bringing that fresh curiosity, plain-speaking and intellectual rigor is refreshing. And it can bring unexpectedly positive results.
And young people will, very soon, be the people doing the work and making the big decisions. It’s tempting to see them as victims who are not getting the resources they need, but they are the present and the future.
Older people do not have a monopoly on good ideas. We would do well to promote inclusivity by giving young people more opportunities to talk—and by actually listening to them. Likewise, young people will benefit from involving themselves proactively in these discussions.
At Women Deliver, we worked with two youth leaders who are part of Act4Food. It was striking to see the reaction when they spoke up. There was a combination of surprise that someone so young was prepared to step forward, as well as respect for their courage, followed by the realization they were saying something pertinent.
The beauty of simplicity
It is lazy to think young people’s lack of experience devalues their opinions. This is fundamentally not the case. It is because they are not jaded by experience that they can bring simplicity and clarity to old debates.
Nutrition is a pressing need so many people around the world share. Our food systems are joined to so many important things—livelihoods, the environment, health, and other topics. Nutrition is also a gender issue. Boys and girls, women and men, have different nutritional needs at different life stages.
Too often, these needs are not met, leading to undernourishment. Inter-generational impacts come into play when women reach childbearing age undernourished and choose to have children, perpetuating the cycle.
Women’s health, an integral part of the discussion at Women Deliver, is dependent on nutrition. Which les to one of our youth leaders asking: Why isn’t everyone talking about food?
Often, it takes the innocence of youth to ask the most obvious questions. Of course, it’s important to discuss healthcare, violence against women and contraception, for example. These are major issues.
Going to bed hungry every night is also important.
One solution, which came from one of the Act4Food young representatives attending Women Deliver, is equally simple: every child should be provided healthy and sustainable food at nursery, school and college.
Making that happen is clearly more complex than the concept. And that’s where those of us with more experience come in.
Engaging with youth and nutrition are closely linked. We saw many people at Women Deliver have dual Ah-ha moment: Of course we need to listen to young people, and of course nutrition is an important gender issue.
Women Deliver happens every three years. We hope to see more young people engaged and more progress on nutrition and food systems at the 2026 conference in Australia.
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Photo courtesy of Lawrence Aritao, Unsplash