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Let 2013 Inspire Us to Do Better in 2014

01/07/2014 05:14 EST | Updated 03/09/2014 05:59 EDT

When six men violently raped a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus, beating her so viciously that she died two weeks later, it was a low point for India -- and the world -- in 2012. But the echo of that vile act carried into 2013, and became a force for change. Millions across India took to the streets in protest and, in a country where the justice system is notoriously soft on sexual violence, the perpetrators were convicted. Although Indian women say streets are still not safe, a movement for change has begun. More Indian women are feeling emboldened to stand up against sexual violence in their country.

Last New Year, we wrote about some of the issues we hoped Canada and the world would tackle in 2013. To reflect on the year gone by, we pulled that column from the archives -- it was a disheartening read. We hoped 2013 would be a year of highs for women, for Canadian aboriginals, for youth, and for the fight against climate change. The year did not live up to expectations. There were, however, seeds of hope, and perhaps the low points of 2013 may yet grow into change in 2014.

It was not a great year for women. As Syria spiralled ever further into chaos, women and girls were among the hardest hit. An estimated 6,000 women became victims of sexual violence. Ninety per cent of Syria's school-aged children -- over 50 per cent of them girls -- could not go to school because of the conflict. Meanwhile, in countries like Egypt and Yemen, the rights of women were in full scale retreat since the Arab Spring.

In Afghanistan -- where western nations like Canada pledged to support women -- the Afghan government failed to pass a law banning violence against women, and is now considering making it legal to stone a woman to death for adultery. This fall, several Canadian university campuses were rocked by scandals as thousands of students participated in orientation activities that made light of rape.

However, 2013 was also the year the whole world made a superstar of a 16-year-old Pakistani school girl, whose fight for girls' education could not be stopped, even by an assassin's bullet. The remarkable story of Malala Yousafzai is already inspiring other girls in Pakistan and around the world to stand up for their rights.

For Canadian aboriginal peoples, 2013 began with Theresa Spence, chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, on a hunger strike to demand the government address aboriginal issues. As the year progressed, the federal government continued to reject national and international calls to address the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women. First Nations groups sued the federal government just to get the same resources for child welfare that non-aboriginal Canadian children enjoy. A group of First Nations youth walked from their reserve in Manitoba to Ottawa to plead for clean water for their communities, enduring racist taunts along the way, only to be largely ignored by politicians when they arrived on Parliament Hill.

At the same time, however, this year we visited schools in Saskatoon and Iqaluit where they are developing innovative new programs to make the education system more relevant and engaging for aboriginal youth. They could hold the solution for the education challenges facing aboriginal communities.

There was little progress in halting climate change in 2013. Canada fell even further behind on meeting our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In separate reports, the U.S.-based Center for Global Development and the Climate Action Network both ranked Canada dead last among developed countries in addressing climate change. Meanwhile, we read too many headlines about unprecedented severe weather events and, in New Zealand, the world saw its first-ever application for a family to be legally recognized as refugees from climate change.

Although the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in November produced few tangible results, we did see the developing nations of the world -- those most affected by climate change -- stand together like never before and demand that rich nations take action on climate change. And just before Christmas, NASA confirmed the depletion of the ozone layer has been halted, thanks to the international efforts to ban ozone-depleting chemicals started 20 years ago.

For youth in Canada, the slight drop in youth unemployment that ushered in 2013 was a blip. Canada's youth unemployment rate hovered at nearly double the average national unemployment rate. And young people elsewhere in the world fared little better. In South Africa, where we just visited for Nelson Mandela's funeral, 70 per cent of people under 35 are out of work. As the global economy is expected to improve in 2014, creating opportunities for youth must be a priority.

Looking back, it's hard not to get mired in the negative. The trick is to find those seeds of hope, to learn from the low points of the year gone by, and from them draw the inspiration to say: this year, we will do better.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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