Yvonne Akoth is a WAGGGS Post-2015 Ambassador from Kenya. Since 2015, she has been working on issues affecting refugees – specifically promoting the safety and socio-economic empowerment of young refugee women. As part of this work, Yvonne set up her own non-profit organization to champion the protection of refugees, working to counter hate-speech in local communities, schools and online.
What are the issues facing refugees in Kenya?
As a country which enjoys relative peace, Kenya has become home to thousands of refugees. Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp is the largest refugee camp in Africa, with nearly 400,000 refugees from mainly Somalia and South Sudan. However, refugees face many challenges, including poverty, unemployment, and lack of resources in camps. Sadly, the recent increase in acts of terrorism has also created attitudes of fear and suspicion toward refugees, and prompted the Kenyan government to consider closing Dadaab and forcing refugees to return to their countries, which are still very dangerous and plagued by conflict. These are some of the major challenges facing refugees in Kenya.
What inspired you to start your own non-profit?
I am a peace advocate and a violence prevention strategist who was inspired to start my own non-profit in order to champion sustainable peace and promote violence prevention among youth in local communities. Young people are often the perpetrators of violence and crime; hence, I believe that it is the same young people who can play an active role in reducing incidences of violence and promoting peace in their communities.
What kind of work does your non-profit do to counter hate speech and encourage tolerance?
My non-profit organization organizes workshops that empower young women and men with skills, knowledge and information that enable them to encourage socio-political, ethnic, and cultural tolerance. We also empower them with information that enables them to counter online and offline hate speech among their peers and in their networks. In order for our work to have a ripple effect in the communities where we work, we use a peer-to-peer strategy so that we can reach as many young people as possible, using both online and offline platforms.
Have you seen change as a result of this work?
Absolutely. I have seen young people who have learned to counter online hate speech with positive feedback and who have come to embrace tolerance and respect for diverse opinions. I have then seen how their attitudes and actions shape thoughts and ideas of online contributors. As a result, we have been able to see a real shift in tone, with more positive views shared in online spaces where negative messages used to dominate.
As a result of the work she does to champion acceptance of refugees and tolerance in communities in Kenya, in February Yvonne was selected as a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Fellow 2016. Yvonne also attended the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Global and Youth Forum, where she made valuable contributions to conversations around the present refugee crisis.
What does being named a USIP Fellow mean to you? What will you do with this opportunity?
It was an honour to be selected a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Generation Change Fellow in February 2016. This is a great opportunity for me to strengthen my peace-building and conflict management skills and knowledge. I intend to use this opportunity to reach out to more young people in the community and young refugees with the support of the fellowship programme, where we will be able to work on sustainable peaceful interventions for future generations to come.
Can you talk about your experience at the UNAOC Global Forum? What did you learn or take away from the conference?
As a Peace Advocate and a WAGGGS Post-2015 Ambassador, I was privileged to represent Kenya in the 7th UNAOC Global and Youth Forum. The global forum provided me the opportunity to work with fellow peace leaders on how we can change the narratives of our future by focusing on how to promote intercultural dialogue, tolerance and peace among diverse communities living in the world. I also had the opportunity to work on the Hate Speech Thematic group of the forum where I was able to share and learn innovative ways of countering hate speech in different social, political, cultural and religious settings.
What do you think is the role of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in responding to the refugee crisis?
Girl Guides and Girl Scouts have an important role to play in responding to the refugee crisis. Over the years, several WAGGGS Member Organizations have implemented projects that provide refugees with basic necessities such as food, water and soap, and empowered girls and young women through non-formal peace education programmes for refugees. As Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, we can contribute to making a safe and secure environment for refugees living in our communities by counter hate speech and speaking out against all types of violence targeted at refugees.
What change or action do you hope to see from the international community to improve the lives of refugees?
The change I hope to see from the international community on the refugee crisis is a renewed commitment of all United Nations Members States to allocate resources that will facilitate the protection and security of refugees. The refugee crisis is a global crisis that needs a joint solution from global leaders, heads of governments, private sector, and civil society, and especially young people to work toward a world free of violent conflicts where no one will be forced to become a refugee.
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