Ugandan named Commonwealth Youth Worker of the Year 2015

The Commonwealth-wide Youth Worker of the Year for 2015 has been awarded to Victor Ochen, founder of the African Youth Initiative Network, a Ugandan NGO that works to empower young people to promote democratic leadership and civic engagement in communities that have faced conflict.

On receiving his award, Victor said: “I am very grateful for the recognition from the Commonwealth. To me, it is the best opportunity to promote young people’s contribution in the global agenda for development. I want to congratulate my colleagues from other regions as well but, above all, I want to congratulate the community that I serve which has inspired me.

“In Africa we need peace. So we must look at the ingredients of peace - democracy, participation, generational inclusion, gender inclusion, diversity - and focus our positive energy on acknowledging, profiling and amplifying the voices of the voiceless.”

Victor was one of five outstanding youth workers recognised today at the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Worker Awards for their efforts to support young people in building peace. The regional Youth Workers of the Year for Asia, Caribbean and Americas, Europe and the Pacific were from Pakistan, Jamaica, Malta and Fiji respectively.

Speaking at the awards ceremony at the Commonwealth’s headquarters in London, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said: “The contribution of youth workers is vital to community cohesion and nation building. Their impact on individual development and public wellbeing is beyond measure – but not beyond recognition. That is why the Commonwealth pioneered professional accreditation of youth work, with training and diplomas to set standards and acknowledge the status of these specialist workers.

“The Commonwealth Youth Worker of the Year Awards add to the distinction of the profession, and acknowledge the immense contribution being made across our member states through innovative initiatives led by brave and inspirational youth workers - often in dangerous circumstances and at considerable personal risk. The recipients of these 2015 Awards make heroic contributions, empowering young people to change their lives for the better, building safer and more inclusive societies. They exemplify all that is best in the Commonwealth, and embody the values and principles of our Charter.”

Mr Christopher Mizzi from Malta was named as Commonwealth Europe Youth Worker of the Year, and Ioane Tupou Nawaikula from Fiji was announced as Youth Worker of the Year for the Pacific. Muhammad Shahzad from Pakistan is Commonwealth Asia Youth Worker 2015, and Miguel ‘Steppa’ Williams from Jamaica is Youth Worker of the Year for the Caribbean & Americas.

The theme for Youth Work Week 2015, running from 2-8 November, is Youth Workers Creating Paths to Peace, acknowledging the role that youth development workers around the world play in fostering social cohesion, peace and security in society.

Ms Katherine Ellis, Director of Youth at the Commonwealth Secretariat, commented: “Youth Work Week is about giving the youth worker sector, which is often unheralded and under-resourced, the international recognition it rightly deserves. As young people are confronted with challenges including marginalisation and unemployment, we must recognise and invest in this vital sector that uncovers young people’s greatness and helps them grow and contribute to nation-building.”

Commonwealth Youth Worker Awards 2015 - Full List of Award Winners:

Commonwealth Youth Worker of the Year and Commonwealth Africa Youth Worker of the Year

Victor Ochen (Uganda) is the founder of the African Youth Initiative Network, a not-for-profit organisation formed ten years ago in Lira, in northern Uganda. Through the network, Victor has provided medical rehabilitation and intensive psychosocial rehabilitation to more than 5,000 victims and survivors of armed conflict, while empowering young people to promote democratic leadership and civic engagement. In 2015, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Commonwealth Asia Youth Worker of the Year

Muhammad Shahzad Khan (Pakistan) is the founder of the Chanan Development Association, which supports the empowerment of young persons to reject extremism, hate speech, violence against women and tribalism. The NGO, which started as a theatre group, has helped to mobilise 500,000 young people across Pakistan with a national dialogue on peacebuilding. He has organised a National Youth Peace Festival and is currently developing a smartphone app called ‘HASP’ to help young people report hate speech.

Mr Shahzad said: “I am receiving this award on behalf of the young people who I work with every day in my community, those living in very difficult circumstances in areas which face militancy and yet who challenge tribal leaders and advocate for the education of young people and girls and boys, bringing peace to their communities, and challenging religious extremist groups who spread hate speech.”

“The award is recognition of the fact that young people are not only the problem creators or beneficiaries, they are actually active contributors of peace and development. Young people face extremism, terrorism, militancy, as well as lack of opportunities for employment and education, but young people also take the lead to resolve these issues.”

Commonwealth Caribbean & Americas Youth Worker of the Year

Miguel ‘Steppa’ Williams (Jamaica) is the founder of the Forward Step Foundation. He uses music and other creative forms of engagement in prisons and among gangs to promote youth empowerment. The foundation works in areas of social enterprise, creative arts, education, safety and sexual and reproductive health.

Mr Williams said: “For me, to be recognised with a Commonwealth Youth Workers Award is a good thing. It is a pat on the shoulder to say, ya man, you doing someting good. The young people who I work with, this award is really for them. But there are a lot of youth workers out there who may not have been nominated who are doing much greater work.”

“When you see the needs of young people and the lack of opportunities and tribalism that presents itself, you realise youth need proper guidance. Sometimes I get a youth who is 15 and has two counts of murder, or a young girl who is twelve and has her second pregnancy, or situations of abuse. If they are not intercepted, there are a lot of problems. On the other hand there are a lot of youth out there sitting on greatness, unseen and not knowing their own potential – as a youth worker you can aid them.”

Commonwealth Europe Youth Worker of the Year

Christopher Mizzi (Malta) is a youth worker with Agenzija Zghazagh. He has worked to build community cohesion among young people who face social ruptures due to urbanisation and new social formations in Malta. He is Secretary General of the Malta Association of Youth Workers and works at ZTK Youth club in Cottonera. He co-ordinates youth-led projects and exchanges dealing with issues of social inclusion, artistic expression, active participation and democratisation with the aim of empowering young people.

Mr Mizzi said: “This award does not only belong to me but also to my colleague Simon Schembri, and to all the young people we work with. Recognition is a very important factor for youth workers to remain positive in their work, however recognition alone will lead nowhere.

“Governments need to invest more in youth work because most youth work is management by crisis. By investing more, youth workers can do more holistic work with the young people within their own communities and support and encourage them to open up opportunities for learning in daily life which will leave a lasting significance.”

Commonwealth Pacific Youth Worker of the Year

Mr Ioane Tupou Nawaikula (Fiji) is a youth development activist with the National Youth Council of Fiji. He has worked to promote young people’s peaceful civic participation during elections, creating seven Peace Forums across Fiji as a mechanism to resolve conflicts and

build peace. He founded the youth group Creating EASEY (Environment, Advocacy and Social Empowerment for Youth) and has organised training to build the capacity of young people.

He said: “The Commonwealth Youth Worker Award means so much not only to me but to the youth workers in Fiji and the Pacific. Youth work contributes a lot to the development of a young person. Where a parent creates that gap between adolescent to adulthood, youth workers pick up the pieces.”

“Youth workers work with the most important resource in every country that will build the nation – they are the human resource and the labour force of tomorrow. They will be the leaders of our countries.”