Born in the small city of Mzuzu, Malawi, with limited economic opportunities, Charles Kajoloweka is no stranger to struggle.
“We were denied quality education and local economic opportunities,” Charles says, recalling the difficulty with which his family and friends acquired even basic resources. “But we survived.”
Charles, now the executive director of the NGO Youth and Society (YAS) and a prominent human rights activist, says his interest in civic engagement stems from just those experiences.
It was during his college years, for instance, that Charles was elected president of his student union. And, when the university council voted to expel a group of disadvantaged nursing students for whom the government refused funding, it was Charles who led the effort to challenge in court the university’s decision and eventually win back the students’ scholarships.
“There was a fervor among the youth then to stand up and speak out about bad governance,” Charles adds.
But that participatory spirit is remarkably muted today. Though Malawi’s youth currently make up 54 percent of the country’s registered voters, most remain underrepresented in the state.
It was with that in mind that Charles founded his NGO and launched the Youth Decide 2019 campaign, a national initiative aimed at empowering Malawian youth to participate in the country’s general elections.
“We look at Malawi with hope,” Charles says. “These are incredible young people inspired to make a difference by getting involved in politics.”
Among the projects Charles oversaw was the drafting of a National Youth Manifesto, a public record of critical priorities for the country’s youth.
“Young people should be able to define the future for themselves,” Charles says. “It’s critical to represent the youth on this scale and to interact with leaders on the basis of these priorities.”
Of the issues raised, the most pressing for youth was unemployment. In fact, those consulted called, first and foremost, for the government to create at least 2.5 million jobs over the next five years.
Equally important was addressing corruption in the state, with young leaders calling on state officials to improve electoral integrity across the country.
“We want to put youth at the center,” Charles says.
Charles emphasizes, too, the importance of meeting the youth where they are and listening closely to their needs. This is especially true in Malawi’s rural areas, where electricity is sparse and many don’t have access to smartphones.
“We need direct contact with the masses,” Charles underlines. “We need to hear the voices that are not heard.”
Forging ahead without this perspective would be, as Charles explains, detrimental.
“There is no future for Malawi without organized youth agency,” he says. “We need to build that agency in Malawi and across the world if we are going to see change, if we are going to move beyond a shared dream.”
Charles Kajoloweka is a human rights activist and the founder and executive director of Youth and Society (YAS), a human rights NGO in Malawi. At 29 years of age, he has enjoyed eight years’ experience in human rights advocacy, providing leadership in program design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and in resource mobilization. He is currently project manager of two governance and human rights projects: the Malawi National Youth Policy Project and the Natural Resource Justice Project, which protect the rights of indigenous communities around Viphya Forest. A former student union leader at university, he is the current adviser to the American ambassador to Malawi on youth issues. After the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Charles plans to establish a youth civic leadership program aimed at empowering 300 potential young civil society leaders, the new voices to strengthen civil society in Malawi and spur sustainable development.