Effective Youth Participation: Harnessing a Vast, Impatient Energy

5 Dec

Editor’s note:   Following the lead of Melina Lito’s work for GAPW on gender, Kritika Seth has been exploring ways to incorporate a youth lens on some of the core security issues that GAPW addresses, including mass atrocity violence and the global arms trade.   As she transitions back to her home in Mumbai, Kritika reflects on some of the insights that she has gleaned from several months of UN meetings and diplomatic discussions. 

The term “youth participation” implies that young people have a role in the structure of any organization of which they are a part. Such participation can take many different forms, but essentially implies consultation, decision-making, and representation that value the role of young people in the affairs of the planet.

In theory, this should ensure that youth participation is significant, robust and responsive to the needs of young people. It should give young people the opportunity to voice what is important to them, take control of decisions that will affect their lives in the future, increase their skills and build confidence and connections to eventually share with their community. For GAPW, youth participation means developing and energizing programs and projects that are more effective in reaching out to young people, campaigning and building awareness among the youth of the community, and more accurately and comprehensively representing their views, talents and needs. Effective youth participation is a two-way stream between organizations working towards youth participation and youth in communities wanting and waiting to provide their input on a myriad of issues that concern them and directly impact their future.

Youth as an Underutilized Grouping

Young people are too often a marginalized population within political processes. We at GAPW feel that people affected by policy should have a voice during the crafting process of the policy rather than merely baring the consequences after policies have been created and enacted. Polices affecting the future of climate health, the global arms trade, gender violence, youth employment and more are being made by older folks alone despite the undeniable fact that the “millennial” generation will be the ones who will have to clean up whatever messes are made. As the director of GAPW, Dr. Robert Zuber explains, “It’s like I take the loan out from the bank and then leave it for you to repay with interest.”

The most glaring example of age disparity today might be in my home country of India, a country with a vast youth population and a median age of 25 which is in sharp contrast to the average age of India’s cabinet ministers – 65 years of age.  This is a far greater age spread than in Brazil or China which have age gaps of under 30 years. In the United States this age gap is 23 years; in Germany it is less than 10.

At this point it is not particularly controversial to argue that the disturbing age gaps between the majority of India’s citizen and their aging leaders is discouraging and even agitating India’s youth. We witness this generation gap when the chairwomen of the National Commission for Women told women to “be careful about how you dress,” after a young women was sexually assaulted in public by a group of men in Guwahati, Delhi. We also witnessed it when a police officer in Mumbai unleashed his night stick on persons enjoying Mumbai’s buzzing nightlife, and then was defended in his actions by the state’s home minister. Overall we see it through an unwillingness to examine how to revamp the country’s aging bureaucracy to help unleash the birth of fresh ideas.

One may argue that the ongoing inter-generational troubles in India are mostly urban and do not affect India’s vast rural youth in the same manner. However, the aspirational rural youth of India (and of many other parts of the world) often admire the lifestyles of their urban counterparts – and if they are not given the opportunity to pursue their dreams, they might ‘lose heart’ not to mention their faith in their government.  At the same time, the elites residing in the metropolitan cities have the money but crave the higher standard of living more characteristic of developed nations. What both these groups have in common is that they need more opportunity for economic and political participation — not only to fulfill their own dreams but to help make possible the dreams of others, both city and rural dwellers.

Recently in New York I approached the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations to investigate the possibility of selecting an official youth delegate from India to the United Nations. This would be similar to Sri Lanka which is now the only country in South East Asia to send an official youth delegation to the United Nations. My proposal did not move forward very quickly. Indeed, while interacting with the mission in an attempt to understand the reasons why India might be reluctant to host an official youth delegate, the conversation ended with “you know how things work back home; what is the use?”

The “use” of having youth helping to represent other youth is the need to include their concerns and aspirations in the public discourse. Time and again more experienced folks fail to recognize the power and dynamism of the young generation. This is especially true in a youthful, energetic, rising power such as India.  Instead of harnessing that energy, youth are told to “sit at the kids table” while the elders deliberate on politics and current affairs. “All around the world the youth need one thing, and that is opportunity,” shared Ahmad Alhendawi, now the UN Secretary General’s Youth Envoy. Following Mr. Alhendawi’s lead, we will continue to respectfully but forcefully urge UN Member States to make more space for the voices and energy of youth.   This energy should certainly be guided by elders; but it must no longer be suppressed.

 Kritika Seth

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