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Making space for the next generation: The importance of involving young people in the response to COVID-19

Amujae Leader and Founder, President, and CEO of the Gam Africa Institute for Leadership (GAIL) Oley Dibba-Wadda, knows that all too often there is a tendency to speak on behalf of young people, rather than involve them in the conversation. In an effort to redress this balance, she placed them front and center in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in The Gambia. Working in collaboration with the Gambian Red Cross, young people from GAIL led efforts to provide handwashing stations, implement sensitization programs to share information about the spread of the virus, and establish foodbanks—which were particularly important during Ramadan.

“The youth were at the forefront of our response with high-level advocacy and providing food for people who couldn’t afford to break the fast.”

Oley recently moved back to The Gambia to take a leadership role within her political party after previously serving as Director of Human Capital, Youth and Skills Development at the African Development Bank. As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, she has also worked with her party to identify priorities and build a new strategy ahead of the 2021 elections. In particular, her efforts around policy development are focused on the health and education sectors, and the need to develop human capital.

Oley has also been working to encourage Gambian consumers and businesses to buy locally during the crisis, in an effort to support local producers and boost the economy. Since the closure of borders due to COVID-19 lockdowns, weaknesses in the value chain for food produce have been revealed. Women farmers in particular—who often operate in the informal sector—have been struggling to sell their produce due to the closure of hotels and restaurants. Furthermore, the border closures have made it hard to obtain some food supplies, with products that would normally flow into The Gambia from other countries now unavailable. She hopes that her advocacy work here will provide additional security should there be another crisis.

Oley has used her profile and platform to advance these issues, recently taking part in a national debate about entrepreneurship in times of crisis. The discussion included a focus on food security and the informal sector, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism industry. And, as with her approach to bringing young people into the response to COVID-19, Oley has also brought them into the debate about the country’s future, organizing a competition between 16 schools which gave them the opportunity to share their experiences and the issues affecting them and their communities.

“The competition was very enriching. It really helped to strengthen community awareness of the youths to give them a sense of leadership—to be able to engage, to be able to advocate, and to be able to sensitize communities on COVID-19.”

Reflecting on her participation in the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum earlier this year, Oley spoke of the sisterhood that is at the center of the Amujae Initiative, and the opportunity to share ideas among this new network. As she looks to the future, she is keen to bring that sense of community to more young women, encouraging them to be bold and courageous and seek positions in public life. With an understanding of the power of mentorship, she is working to build a platform that will enable intergenerational dialogue between young women and the older generation in The Gambia, reforming the social structure and building new links between them with a focus on projecting a sense of national identity.

“Young people have agency. They know what they want, and they’re excited to have an environment where they’re able to explore, without being afraid of whether they will fail. It doesn’t make sense to be having conversations about the future, when the future isn’t present in that meeting. There are a lot of women trailblazers already, but we must encourage more women and make space for them to enter political leadership.”

Read more about Oley Dibba-Wadda here.

The Amujae Initiative is the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Learn more about the center here.

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