A brighter future for youth | Sunday Observer
International Youth Day falls today...

A brighter future for youth

When youth have safe spaces to engage, they can effectively contribute to development. Perhaps the best ‘safe space’ for youth is the home itself, where they can have a protective, nurturing environment helmed by parents

Everyone wants to be young all the time. Youth, as they say, is the best time of our lives. Just who is a youth ? A youth is generally regarded as someone between 15-35, though teenagers from age 13-15 are sometimes counted. There are currently two billion young people between the ages of 15 and 25 in the world. This is the largest youth population ever. In Sri Lanka, there are around five million youth out of a 21 million population. Today, we celebrate youth – both that time of our lives and young people themselves.

August 12 was first designated International Youth Day by the UN General Assembly in 1999, and serves as an annual celebration of the role of young women and men as essential partners in change, and an opportunity to raise awareness of challenges and problems facing the world’s youth. The idea for the International Youth Day was proposed in 1991 by young people who gathered in Vienna for the first session of the World Youth Forum. International Youth Day was first observed in 2000.

Today, More than 400 million young women and men live amidst armed conflict or organized violence. Millions face deprivation, harassment, bullying, denial of education and other infringements of their rights. Young women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Youth have far better prospects in Sri Lanka than in many other developing countries, but it is not an entirely rosy picture.

This year’s theme is “Safe Spaces for Youth”. Youth need safe spaces where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves. While there are many types of spaces, safe spaces ensure the dignity and safety of youth. Safe spaces such as civic spaces enable youth to engage in governance issues; public spaces afford youth the opportunity to participate in sports and other leisure activities in the community; digital spaces help youth interact virtually across borders with everyone; and well planned physical spaces can help accommodate the needs of diverse youth especially those vulnerable to marginalization or violence. In humanitarian or conflict prone settings for example, youth may lack the space to fully express themselves without feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome. Similarly, without the existence of safe space, youth from different race/ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or cultural background may feel intimidated to freely contribute to the community.

When youth have safe spaces to engage, they can effectively contribute to development. Perhaps the best ‘safe space’ for a youth is the home itself, where they can have a protective, nurturing environment helmed by parents. The other most important safe space is the school or university. Yes, young lovers need safe spaces too – a few years ago, when a senior minster proposed the idea of having ‘Pem Uyanas’ (Love Gardens), he was laughed out of hand. But in hindsight, it was a bright idea with plenty of plus points.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, emphasizes the need for the provision of space towards inclusive and sustainable urbanization. Furthermore, the New Urban Agenda reiterates the need for public spaces for youth to enable them to interact with family and have a constructive inter-generational dialogue. As more and more youth grow in a technologically connected world, they aspire to engage deeper in political, civic and social matters, and the availability and accessibility of safe spaces becomes even more crucial to make this a reality. After all, the hopes of the world rest on young people. The key word here is investment.

Investing in education and health of young people is vital as they are our hope for the future. Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries where both these components are free virtually for life. Our education and health indices are almost on par with those of the developed world, thanks to the continuation of the free education and free health systems by successive governments. But there are two nagging problems - higher educational facilities at State universities are limited to only around 25,000 students per year, which leaves out around 100,000 others. It is vital to find other educational facilities or vocational training opportunities for these young people.

Another issue is the mismatch between the requirements of the job market and our educational curricula which are not job-oriented. Thousands of job vacancies go unfilled every week because there are no takers for these jobs. A few years ago there was a programme which trained graduates and other youth for private sector employment – this should be revived urgently.

Youth must be equipped with the skills that can help them to secure employment. Youth must be encouraged to think outside the box and come up with projects that can elevate their economic status. This is in fact the aim of a new programme started by the Finance Ministry that encourages youth start-ups in a variety of sectors. We must invest so that young people have access to education, training and decent jobs to achieve their full potential. We have to make traditional livelihoods such as agriculture more attractive to the younger generation by making them high-tech. What will happen if sons and daughters of all farmers decide to look for white collar jobs in the city, for example?

It is also vital to veer youth away from various social vices such as narcotics and alcohol. This has become a major issue in all countries including Sri Lanka. Tobacco companies, which are losing the elderly population, are targeting the youth as their next consumer group. Youth have also fallen prey to illegal drugs. At least 100,000 youth in Sri Lanka are reported to be addicted to various narcotics. These are youth in the prime of their youth who could otherwise make a major contribution to the economy. Schools, religious institutions and the media must focus heavily on rescuing the younger generation from these evils.

The Internet is useful on so many levels, but many youth have got addicted to it, especially the likes of Facebook where they throw caution to winds and publish intimate details of their lives online. Several unfortunate incidents have occurred due to the misuse of such social media. There have been many instances of jilted young lovers releasing intimate videos and nude pictures of their partners to the Internet, which had led to tragedy. A degree of parental and self control is necessary for Internet use at least until age 21. There is another side to this story – many youth live their lives entirely online to the detriment of their actual social life. These youth do not have time even to sit at the dinner table and talk to their parents. Moreover, the education “rat race” aimed only at examination success means that teens attend tuition classes during much of their free time thus depriving them of quality time with the family. A stronger bond with parents essential for young people to get a better outlook on the world but we do not see this happening in most households.

There is a lot of talk on empowering the youth, but at least in a political sense this is not happening. It was only recently that the authorities upped youth representation in local bodies. There are many impediments that prevent talented young men and women from entering grassroots politics such as the need for massive amounts of money, the need for political family connections and the ability to take care of thousands of supporters. Not many have the funds for such activities. However, we hope that the new rules will enable more young people to enter the political mainstream and take decisions about welfare and development activities in their villages.

The youth, especially young women, should have a bigger voice in our politics.

Women and girls fare much better in Sri Lanka than in some of our neighbouring counties and other developing countries especially in terms of health and education (there is zero discrimination in terms of educating girl children), but a lot more needs to be done in this sphere. Sexual abuse and exploitation of young women and girls, internal trafficking for prostitution and domestic physical and sexual of girls and young women are all problems of a serious magnitude. There have been several brutal cases of rape and murder of young girls that shocked the society to its core. There are calls for tougher action against the perpetrators of these crimes, but many cases of rape and molestation go unreported as victims fear to come out due to the possibility of lifelong stigma. Indeed, societal attitudes on such victims need to change. Such youth must be given all opportunities to leave the past behind and look to the future.

Youth is not only a particular age – it is also a state of mind. Hence the saying “young at heart”. We need an entire generation who think like youth regardless of their age – revolutionary, innovative, brave and open to new ideas. A nation that is in essence youthful and gives pride of place to its youth will always prosper.