Aligning with former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s declaration that the world must advance the causes of security, development and human rights together, Cynthia Chigwenya is passionate about youth inclusion and has had the privilege to work on various post-conflict cases, including Rwanda, Zimbabwe and South Sudan. She chats to Go Hustle about her incredible work.
Drumroll… Introducing the African Union Youth Ambassador!
Cynthia’s profession spans peace-building, sustainable development and youth engagement in politics. She currently serves as the African Union Youth Ambassador for Southern Africa (2022-2024), and her mandate is to promote youth participation in peace-building and decision-making, among other political processes.
“I also works as a Programme Coordinator for the Political Dialogue for Sub-Saharan Africa Programme at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation that focuses on justice, freedom and democracy. I have previously held research positions in the South African Parliament and the Rwandan Government under the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide in Kigali,” she says.
At the continental level, out of 55 heads of state, less than five are female, says Cynthia – meaning gender representation at the presidential level is concerning. “There have been some improvements in the African Union’s structures, incorporating more [of] a gender and youth lens,” she says.
There’s hope for young girls and women
Compared to a decade ago, the future looks way more hopeful for a young girl who wants to engage in politics and peace-building. Cynthia emphasises that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting into peace-building, though. “I started off as a politics and international relations student; these qualifications enable me to work in the spaces I am in,” she says. “It will be remiss to present education as the only method to engage in politics. Methods including social work, being of service to the community and grass-root work form youth leadership.”
She strongly recommends scholarships that have institutional capital, i.e. reputable organisations. For example, you could opt for a voluntary internship with a bigger organisation as this brings opportunities for networking and building social capital, versus being overly focused on a stipend offered.
There is a need to discern, explains Cynthia. “I’ve found that most young professionals end up working for free for too long – so discernment is vital. I suggest Opportunities for Africans and Africademics because they collate information on various scholarships, presenting a wider variety of options – internships, scholarships or fellowships,” she adds.
Youth inclusion is really, really important
Career-wise, Cynthia is just starting out as a development practitioner and political researcher because she was in academia for long.
“The challenges I’ve experienced (and still do at times) are realising that there are existing structures that may be stifling – an example being the only young person or the only young female at the table. While that attests to the strides I’ve made to be in such spaces at a personal level, it reflects the lack of representation referred to earlier and that has implications on decision-making, project design and implementation that is gender-aware and youth inclusive,” she says.
But although youth inclusion in political spaces has not reached the desired capacity yet, there is progress both on the global and regional scales, says Cynthia.
The positive impact of social media
“I use my social media to lobby for more youth engagement in conferences and symposia on the Youth, Peace and Security agenda at local and global levels. An example is my participation in the High-Level Conference on Youth Inclusive Peace Processes,” says Cynthia.
In addition to lobbying, Cynthia is grateful to be a part of networks of young people in Southern Africa and Africa who engage in political work at various levels. “These individuals always serve as support structures and attest to the potential that coordinating efforts holds,” she says.
Identifying opportunities and forming coalitions
Cynthia believes young female leaders must identify opportunities within their communities, form networks and coalitions (because there’s power in numbers!) and seek partnerships with existing organisations. “This approach will enable them to leverage the ‘opportunity windows’ that open and access funding or training programmes. Moreover, young female leaders should fight against stereotypes relating to gender and social norms that perceive them as less capable than their male counterparts. Instead, this must be used to showcase that they are enough and more than capable,” she adds.
A change in perspective
Reading gives Cynthia the ability to conjure up new worlds in her imagination. “One of the books that changed my perspective is The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay. The book focuses on choices we make during our twenties (consciously or unconsciously) that have the most profound impact on the rest of our lives,” says Cynthia.
She’d also recommend Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and The Girl with a Louding Voice by Abi Dare. “The two novels are about young black girls living in small, rural, improvised villages in post-colonial Rhodesia and Nigeria, respectively, and they believe that their emancipation and self-improvement is through education. The two characters begin to question society, which is the essence of education and define their own transformation,” she says.
Connect with Cynthia
LinkedIn: Cynthia Chigwenya