The expression "a voice is all you need," was constantly used by my ninth grade English teacher to emphasize the importance of speaking up for what you believe in. Today, I have come realize of why my English teacher insisted on this revelation.
I believe that young people are the future, that every governing body and the systems that surround the stability of human existence and interaction is in their hands - in our hands. Therefore, it is the duty of every individual in this global network, young and old, to preserve the future of “us,” your children and the future generations to come.
Today’s conversation is around the situation of overweight and obese young people in South Africa. According to the latest South African Demographic Health Survey, more than 31 percent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 live with obesity. This conversation, however, is not to bore you with statistics, but to rather share my experience and my advocacy journey with UNICEF South Africa.
I attended a school where the kids who lived with overweight and were shaped differently from others were often bullied. I sat with one kid in my school transport, who would always eat his lunch box after school in the transport, and never during break until he eventually stopped eating at school or even after. I remember feeling sorry for him as I hopped off the school bus and wondered why the kids at my school would pick on those who looked different.
This is unfortunately the reality of many children who live with overweight or obesity in my country. These individuals are often stigmatized, blamed for “eating too much” and as a consequence are labelled as ‘fat’. The stigma surrounding obesity has too often negatively shaped youth perceptions on the issue. However, this issue doesn’t just concern us as young people, but goes far beyond us.
I have come to understand that overweight and obesity are direct consequences of a food system that fails to provide us with easy access to affordable, nutritious foods, while dishonestly marketing unhealthy foods. This has contributed to the rise of obesity and non-communicable diseases.
I recently participated in a Youth Advocacy Guide training hosted by UNICEF South Africa at my university campus, in Cape Town. The three-day program evoked a true ‘esprit du advocacy’ amongst the participants, including myself. This inspired me to take part in the conversation that surrounded nutrition and our current food system, including in UNICEF’s My Body, My Health: My Wealth campaign.
I now work with UNICEF South Africa as their Youth Advisor for this unique campaign to advocate for these issues in my community and on my campus. I have stirred up conversations on my campus, by gathering testimonials and getting into the minds of my peers to ultimately hear their experiences and challenges of living a healthy lifestyle.
In addition, in my capacity as the campus radio station presenter, I have been working with UNICEF South Africa on creating a radio program initiative to take this conversation further to a mass group of young individuals on campus and in surrounding communities.
It is important to help correct misconceptions surrounding obesity by first acknowledging its complexities and fighting against stigma, and then by taking effective collective action to address this widespread health issue. Let us come to the realization that the foods and the drinks that we consume and purchase are what helps make us healthy, and that we need to advocate for a system that makes healthy foods and a healthy environment accessible, safe and affordable for everyone.
Ivha Nkhumeleni is a law student in South Africa. She is a UNICEF Volunteer and a youth advisor for the UNICEF campaign My Body, My Health: My Wealth. Ivha is a radio presenter at her university radio station and an active member of various university campus clubs. Ivha is a passionate self-starter and advocate at heart.