Colors, Youth and Afro Descendant Power

18 September 2020
© UNFPA Costa Rica
Leonela Calderón Gordon is about to finish her university studies. She loves dancing, expressing herself and defending her afro descendant roots. Through UNPFA support, she has trained and learned valuable lessons on empowerment, solidarity and the defense of human rights.

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica - Speaking with Leonela is refreshing and inspiring.  At 22, she has that youthful attitude of wanting to embrace the world and make the best out of everything.  “I studied sociology and I have always been interested in getting involved in extracurricular activities and volunteering to enhance my knowledge,” she explains.

Her desire to learn and contribute led her to participate in a 2017 youth camp organized by the office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) - Costa Rica, where she received training on a variety of topics such as sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and human rights.  “In that camp, we pretended to cross a border, acting like one side was from another country. It was incredible how such a simple game made us reflect so deeply on something as impactful as migration," she recalls. 

Leonela has a history of migration in her own family that has left a strong impact on her. "I am an afro descendant person who has practically always lived in the Greater Metropolitan Area (Central Valley of Costa Rica)," she says. Her parents are from Limón, the Costa Rican Caribbean coast, and were also raised in the Central Valley. "My reality has distanced me from my culture, from my roots, and as I have grown, I have tried to reconnect with them."

Her reality has not always been the easiest. "Despite the fact that I have always lived here, many people consider that I do not fully belong within the Costa Rican culture. It never goes unnoticed, you grow up with stereotypes about your hair, skin color and you don't understand why. Now I finally feel good about my hair,” says Leonela. “The structural racism that exists is reflected even in the smallest of things. Sometimes you get angry because they call you 'black', sometimes you don't care. They are strange things that affect you emotionally… as you age, you start to understand more and more,” she adds.

Learning and Growing

After her initial experience, Leonela looked for ways to continue participating and supporting UNFPA activities. Because of her intense commitment, she was chosen to participate in the 2019 Regional Camp: Youth Now!, held in Puebla, Mexico. “For me that was incredible. I made friends and learned a lot from them. I also really liked that the people in charge were young.”

Her participation was so active that the declaration that came out of the event included a poem that she wrote during sleepless nights and teamworking sessions. “I have never seen an organization or entity that invests so much in young people and gives us so many opportunities as UNFPA so we can strengthen our leadership and influence those spaces where decisions regarding our lives, our bodies and the world we live in are made. I feel that they provide spaces for us to be able to gain skills and work based on our realities. It really leaves a mark on us,” she says.

Towards the end of 2019, Leonela also participated in the Forum and High-Level Meeting for Advancing the Rights of Afro descendant Populations, organized by the Office of the Vice President of Costa Rica- Epsy Campbell and UNFPA. "It helped me to better understand new references and establish partnerships in the region. It has been an inspiration to continue advancing – as a whole – the Afro descendant movement," as she stated in this video as part of the initiative.

All of these preparations led her to live the experience of being part of Costa Rica's youth delegation at the Nairobi Summit (ICPD). As part of that youth group, she contributed to promoting commitments to meet the sexual and reproductive health needs of women, youth and marginalized groups.

“I feel that what has touched me the most, having met UNFPA and the events that they invited me to participate in, is the understanding that the struggles for rights are collective. Maybe I fight for what affects me or what goes through my body, but I am also advancing the Afro descendant fight as I learn more about other struggles. We can all join together because in the end we are all fighting for human rights," she confirms.

Leonela also participated in the Forum and High-Level Meeting for Advancing the Rights of Afro descendant Populations. @UNFPA Costa Rica

And COVID-19?

Under other circumstances, Leonela would be working as a salesclerk in a clothing store.  Perhaps she would participate in a dance group - which she loves - and most likely would have progressed in her graduation thesis. But the store is closed, the meetings between friends suspended and her field work for her thesis project is on hold. Now she is taking virtual classes and is accompanied by her mother, who is a teacher, and her stepfather.

"Because of COVID-19, I am missing the part of building my thesis with the target population that I want to focus on, so I'm sure I am going to have to wait," she says as she comes to terms with the unique situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she also sees the silver lining in all of this. "We know that nothing is going to be the same again. Many things are coming, there is an economic crisis, but these crises are what paves the way for transformation.”

“Many people when they are at home do other activities, they garden for example. We see the unity, people bring out the best of themselves and of each other, they become more supportive.  Nature has also expressed itself and I feel that there is more awareness about the problems related to global warming,” she says.

Speaking of positive transformations, Leonela has every intention of doing her best to bring about change. “I feel very lucky because I have always had the opportunity to study.  If I have the tools, I have to use them to make a transformation. It is important to give something back, like what UNFPA has done by giving us these tools so that we young people can use them to transform our realities,” she affirms.

Leonela longs to be part of an organization that allows her to have a job that brings her closer to people, to support vulnerable populations, “like UNFPA,” she says (you can't see her smile, but you can hear it over the phone when she says it). "Whatever it is, that at least it can inspire someone to transform their life, their reality, that is my main goal," she concludes. 

Afro descendant youth

Costa Rica's young population accounts for 36% of the country's total population, according to the 2018 Third National Youth Survey. That represents a total of 1,795,772 young people between the ages of 15 and 35 living in Costa Rica. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are a little over 36 million afro descendant young people in the 15 to 29 age range, which accounts for 6% of the total population in the region. 

The UNFPA Costa Rica office has a long history of work in favor of young people's rights. They recently provided support for a consultation on the Public Policy for Young People, together with the Vice Ministry of Youth and the Youth Council, which included specific consultations with afro descendant, indigenous and LGBTIQ+ persons, under the principle of "Leaving no one behind". This inclusion is also reflected in national youth camps, where efforts have been made to have a diverse participation, including afro descendant young people, such as Leonela. 

Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNFPA Costa Rica office provides advocacy support so young people can become "agents of change", including campaigns to disseminate actions young people can carry out during the pandemic. 

Young people have led the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by mobilizing and taking action all over the world. These young people include health workers, activists, innovators and social and community workers. According to data from the Youth Survey on COVID-19 of the United Nations System, conducted among adolescents and young people from Latin America and the Caribbean, 1 in 3 young people in the region have become involved in, or led, an action in response to COVID-19. UNFPA, as the agency leading the adolescence and youth agenda, is working together with youth organizations to ensure adolescents and young people can have access to quality and friendly sexual and reproductive health services, live free from any form of gender-based violence, and have safe spaces for their activism and participation. 

Young people are participating and have developed solutions and actions in the area of sexual and reproductive health. UNFPA is currently working on a process to analyze adolescent pregnancy among afro descendant girls and adolescents.

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