07/07/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Young People: Our Present and Our Future

More than a dozen of Women Deliver's Young Leaders attended the PMNCH Partners' Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nelson Mandela once said: "Whenever I am with young people, I feel like a recharged battery." I couldn't agree more, after having spent the last couple of days with a good bunch of the Women Deliver Young Leaders at the Partnership on Maternal, Child and Newborn Health (PMNCH) Partners' Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa.

When young people tell me what motivated them to advocate for girls' and women's health and rights, their stories are at once heartbreaking and inspiring. For Yemurai Nyoni in Zimbabwe, it was a 12-year-old girl named Tecla who was sold into marriage and contracted HIV. For Mary Mwende in Kenya, it was the violence of male-dominated politics that she witnessed as a child in the slums of Mombasa. When faced with injustice, these Young Leaders took action to improve the world around them -- and their stories, in turn, inspire others.

At the Partners' Forum, I watched the Young Leaders take center stage among thousands of global leaders and advocates. Together, we launched the Every Newborn Action Plan and kicked off the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDG) tour featuring President Paul Kagame, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and MDG Advocates Ambassador Graça Machel. But what inspired me the most were the young people.

Today, young people under 30 make up a staggering 40 percent of our world's population. With three billion of them, it's the largest generation of youth the world has ever seen. Many young people work hard and tirelessly to improve the health of their communities and countries. Their needs, voices and perspectives must be central in high-level, global conversations -- and at the PMNCH Forum, they were.

Over the last three days, young people showcased their remarkable contributions to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Women Deliver was proud to see 16 of our Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders participate in the Forum. Three of these Young Leaders presented on high-level plenaries alongside Joy Phumaphi, Co-chair of the Independent Expert Review Group; Carole Presern, Executive Director of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health; and Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA. Several Young Leaders presented on panels and during the +SocialGood event, discussing issues ranging from child marriage, education and sex, to the health and rights of adolescent girls.

These rising stars traveled to South Africa from virtually all corners of the globe - Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe -- to share their experiences and expertise, and call for a better future for girls and women everywhere. And I was so lucky to get to spend time with them and hear their stories.

It is no coincidence that Women Deliver has made young people a cornerstone of our programmatic work. They make change happen. Through our Young Leaders program, we provide promising and passionate young advocates with the tools, trainings and opportunities they need to make a viable difference in their own countries -- and raise their voices and spread their ideas throughout the global community.

The end result is inspiring. We've seen our Young Leaders hold their governments accountable for their commitments, launch impressive communications campaigns for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and implement projects in their communities with seed grants through our C-Exchange Youth Initiative.

Mandela also said: "When people are determined, they can overcome anything." When our Young Leaders return home after international gatherings like PMNCH, the International Conference on Family Planning, and Women Deliver 2013, they translate newfound knowledge into action.

The field of sexual and reproductive health, where I've spent over a decade, offers many rewards - but the ability to work with young people is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work. Their ambition is inspiring, their energy is contagious, and their innovation is changing the world as we know it. In short: they rock!

It is the world's obligation to include their voices and take their rights and needs seriously, now and in the post-2015 development framework. Young people are our present and our future, and as they say: nothing about us, without us.