María Juliana Ruiz, First Lady of the Republic of Colombia

María Juliana Ruiz is committed to promoting integral development for young Colombians from early childhood into early adulthood. Her engagements include childhood nourishment programs by strengthening infrastructures and medical assistance, ensuring the consumption of essential micronutrients, and fostering safe socio-emotional environments. Her commitment to young people is embodied through the establishment of the SACÚDETE (“Shake Yourself”) Strategy: a network designed to inspire young people to develop leadership skills, contributing to social and productive change in the country. The initiative aims to create 140 innovative learning centres and reach over 400.000 beneficiaries by 2022.

 

In 2018, I found myself as First Lady of Colombia, bursting with ideas and projects, and with a renewed sense of purpose, with all my professional and human skills put at the service of my fellow Colombians, tireless and relentless, seeing in this task a huge responsibility that I defined under two major capacities: advocacy and convening. And at the same time, an immense opportunity to set in motion decisive actions and establishing an institutional architecture and comprehensive policies to support the citizen’s holistic life course, from 0 to 28 years old, by cultivating protective and prosper environments where my fellow countrymen could thrive.

I had the call to make a specific emphasis on youth, aiming to create real opportunities or close gaps and reduce inequalities, and focused on developing essential life skills.

This dream has accompanied me ever since, convinced that gathering efforts and involving different actors to work from a multisectoral perspective will positively impact the well-being of our younger generations. Ploughing fertile grounds for them to bloom and bear fruit will be decisive for the sustainable development of our societies and for achieving the goals set by the 2030 Agenda. Personally, I believe in youth’s capacity of resilience, creativity and innovation, and in the chance, we have to foster their talents and skills for them to become leaders and agents of constructive change.

***

Important efforts had already been deployed in Colombia for early childhood and childhood, up to the early teens, which we have strengthened with a vision of zero tolerance for any form of violence, and building a concept of nourishment which applies to both the food (nutrition needs) and to spiritual and emotional well-being; giving the body the resources it needs for physical and cognitive development and at the same time, nourishing the soul with protection and caring.

Our biggest challenge arose willing to develop the necessary conditions to extend that integral approach to support the Colombian youth in a meaningful way – an age group that demanded specific attention. Even more when one considers that teenagers and young adults are restless age groups, where many of life’s important changes take place –– such as transitions between education stages, vocational orientation, becoming autonomous, reaching sexual maturity, and professional insertion ––, and where the full support of the public sector is much needed, with the purpose of leaving no one behind.

We’re a country with a total population of over 48 million people, and 12.6 million of them are aged between 14 and 28 years –– according to our Youth Citizenship Statutory Law –– and more than 70% of our population are below 40 years old. About 21.6% of Colombia’s young population is unemployed (between 15 to 25 years old). Many are neither studying nor in training and capable of working. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, youth unemployment increased from 16% to 21% in one year, with informality and poor working conditions amongst the most pressing issues. Moreover, there are concerning gaps in terms of access to quality healthcare and education, including challenges to successfully remain enrolled and to remain exclusively dedicated to higher education studies.

In order to tackle these issues, we gathered strategic actors national and international (Interamerican Development Bank and United Nations Development Programme) and creative minds and came up with the idea to put in place an ambitious program that would contribute to strengthen a new generation of Colombians, sharing a common belief where young people are decisive actors in positive transformation and sustainable development, and with the aim to foster their skills and capabilities to fulfil their potential, with happy and productive lives. This is how the SACUDETE Strategy was born, a program that supports young people and creates prosperity by providing innovative training in areas such as climate action, creative and cultural industries, innovation, science, technology and tourism, developing entrepreneurial skills, becoming community leaders through solidarity, empathy and collaboration. Like a complete puzzle, SACUDETE is designed to provide continuity to the programs targeting development in childhood and early adolescence and filling the institutional void for the youth. Two aspects are essential for this task: to gather efforts and make alliances with multisectoral actors and partners to build the grounds for a sustainable program, and to make SACUDETE a territorial program genuinely inspired by the people who live in our country and with the purpose of amplifying their voices, promoting diversity and multiplicity as key factors for creating shared value.

***

Once the concept of SACUDETE was devised, the following step was to establish an institutional architecture and an ecosystem of strategic alliances, to carry out a program of this magnitude. The government started by strengthening the national youth agency Colombia Joven by upgrading it to a Presidential Youth Office, with new management capacity, confirming Presidents’ Duque trust in youth and prioritizing them as a State essential responsibility.

In the same line, the Direction of Adolescence and Youth was created inside the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, counting on incredible human and financial resources and with territorial extent because of its regional agencies. Thanks to the combined efforts of these two institutions, we’ve built momentum with other governmental and territorial entities, private businesses, civil society and academia to constitute what we call the SACUDETE Ecosystem, with multisectoral actors participating and contributing to the program and constructing a sense of territorial belonging. All of this is possible because we believe and recognize youth’s talents, abilities and capabilities to transform our realities, a cause we share and that we spread as a philosophy of change for the new generations.

Simultaneously, we reached out to multilateral organizations to assist us with the formulation and the financial sustainability of this newly created program in terms of methodology and operation, as well as devising ways to have a national reach. The help of multilateral organizations has been a key factor in the success of this project. Even though Colombia is a middle-income country, we still have many challenges in terms of inequality and granting access to opportunities evenly, especially in the midst of the stabilization and consolidation process we currently face. This is why we gratefully received the support of the United Nations Development Program during the first stages of SACUDETE’s development, and later on, in December 2020, we subscribed an international loan for 50 million dollars to finance SACUDETE between 2021 and 2024 with the Interamerican Development Bank, a fundamental ally for us.

***

Thanks to their help, we’ve developed an innovative and disruptive internationally-backed methodology, with three stages: INSPIRATION, ENGAGEMENT and TRANSFORMATION. Throughout this process, young beneficiaries become self-aware of their own talents and are encouraged to develop them with a socially oriented frame of mind, and they are oriented technically towards designing projects to solve real issues and local challenges by working together. The process takes place at the SACUDETE Centers, which are creative and innovative laboratories, centres of social interaction and gathering, through spreading the SACUDETE vision and philosophy with national reach.

SACUDETE’s training programs are centred in developing skills and talents from the 4th Industrial Revolution focused on resilience, including creativity, design thinking, collaboration, critical capacity, communications and curiosity, in order to build self-confidence and richer relations and exchanges between the youth, as well as to provide sustainable alternatives to illegal activities and risk behaviour.

The methodology is customized according to the beneficiaries by considering the differences, idiosyncrasies and individualities of the communities and territories where it works, as well as the programs which already exist or have been implemented before. The young people who experience SACUDETE, are also expected to follow one of the “three E paths”: Education enrolling in academic programs and colleges, Employment by finding jobs and becoming competitive in the professional market and Entrepreneurship by providing services and solutions. This is one of the ways that we hope to achieve sustainability, since the beneficiaries will, in turn, become guides, mentors or inspirational figures to others by creating a network and a community around SACUDETE, by replicating the good practices, and transferring and generating knowledge.

***

In 2020 we faced one of humanity’s biggest challenges in recent history because of the Covid-19 pandemic and lived a year full of uncertainty, and we experienced a lockdown like humanity had never seen before in its entire history. This was also a major issue for SACUDETE, first designed to be a face-to-face program in the territories. But we soon discovered that what we thought at first to be a setback became an opportunity to innovate once more and to rethink its methodology and operational model to adopt a blended learning model, combining face-to-face, remote and virtual methods to reach young people in more than 620 of our 1.103 municipalities, in only one year. This way, we were able to successfully attain more than 100.000 young people in 2020, supporting them and building a sense of community, through protective and productive environments, in a most difficult year; with the total goal of impacting over 400.000 young people and establishing more than 230 centres in 2022 and reaching the whole country through blended methodologies.

With SACUDETE, we adapted to take measures to take care of our youth and to improve their well-being, and we mobilized our joint efforts to prevent young people from losing touch; on the contrary, we felt that this was an opportunity to reach out to our deepest and most sincere humanity, to establish solidarity and empathy as our core principles. And to use technology to build bridges between different people, emotions, ideas, minds and subjectivities, uniting territories and cultures, inspiring each other through our differences to acquire a broader vision of the world and of ourselves.

***

Through hard work and endeavour, and especially by listening to the Colombian people and discovering multiple realities through their eyes, we’ve reassured the need to build programs and strategies that involve the people who will experience them because, as a country, we’re dealing with human beings and human lives. And this is a crucial point to understand the success of SACUDETE and feel the passion of the teams and the people committed to making it happen.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future”. And for that purpose, we need to establish fertile grounds for young people to thrive, and to encourage them through substantial actions and commitments, and to seed in them a sense of hope to transform their realities and others’ for a better present and a brighter future, partaking a common cause. I am convinced that by empowering youth, we´re truly making an investment in our social well-being and our sustainable and economic development.

About María Juliana Ruiz

María Juliana Ruiz obtained a Law degree from Javeriana University, studied at the Catholic Institute in Paris and later obtained a Master’s degree in Law, with an emphasis on International Business, at the American University. Upon completion of an internship at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington D.C., she began what would become an ascending career at OAS over 10 years, culminating at the office of the Secretary-General. Back in Colombia, she served as Secretary-General of the Shaio Clinic, before resigning to assume her duties as First Lady of the Nation.

María Juliana Ruiz has been married to Iván Duque, President of the Republic of Colombia for 18 years. As First Lady of Colombia, she has become a Colombian Ambassador to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 17: “Partnership for the Goals”.

Related Articles