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Forest Whitaker: Universal Children’s Day and the Need for Youth Empowerment

Children everywhere hold promise to transform our world for the better. But for them to achieve their full potential and become tomorrow’s change agents, the global community must redouble its commitment to ensuring that each and every child receives a quality education in the face of threats that many of them face at present. 

Through my work as the UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation as well as the CEO of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), I have seen firsthand the dangers youths face in addition to their potential and accomplishments. Around the world, the United Nations estimates that 600 million children live in conflict-prone areas and that there are still some 300,000 child soldiers. The World Bank recently reported that over 260 million children of school age do not go to school. While attending school does not necessarily guarantee learning, this should be unacceptable. At a fundamental level, we should advocate that all children receive a holistic education that is centered upon fostering values, attitudes, and behaviors conducive to building a more peaceful world. 

Universal Children’s Day is a unique occasion to remind ourselves and those around us why that should be. For if we want to continue building a more peaceful, inclusive, and equitable world for all its inhabitants, we must empower our children with the tools they will need to build that world. We often say that today’s children will be tomorrow’s leaders – but this does not bear on the kind of leaders they will be; this does not bear on the kind of values they will live by and promote. That is why it is crucial that we instill those values.

When children are provided with that kind of value-based, quality education as well as the tools they need to succeed, the results can be remarkable. That is what WPDI has striven to do. In Uganda, a young refugee from South Sudan joined our Sports for Peace program and excelled; he was selected to compete in an international competition, which fueled him and his community with joy and hope for the future. In South Sudan and Uganda, our Peace through Cinema program invites children to discuss and react to film in a creative way through mediums like the arts. In the United States and Mexico, we teach conflict resolution education in middle schools to empower children with skills to allow them to be active in peacebuilding efforts within their communities. All these actions create their own unique impact that, when compounded, serve as the building blocks in the foundation to create a future of peace where citizens herald a culture of dialogue and openness to the others.

When children are provided a quality, values-based education, they can be more than promising tomorrow; they can be partners in peacebuilding today. We know this to be true. But to successfully transform our world for the better, we need to provide more to our children. Although Universal Children’s Day is meant to be an occasion on which we all advocate, promote, and celebrate the rights of children, let’s commit ourselves to doing so every day.