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Participation BY the youth, not FOR the youth

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Young people the world over on Wednesday of this week engaged in various activities to mark International Youth Day (IYD). This day was designated by the United Nations since 1999 as dedicated to the youth of the world, but has commemorated with varying levels of success in different parts of the world.

The theme for this year’s commemoration is a very challenging one, given the reality in countries like ours. It speaks of “Youth Civic Engagement,” pointing out that such engagement and participation by young people in civic affairs “are essential to achieve human sustainable development.”{{more}} However, in spite of such a noble aim, the United Nations points out that the opportunities for youth to engage politically, economically and socially “are low or non-existent.”

This is reflected in the economic, social and political realities of our times. It is true that today’s youth are better educated than their forebears, but they continue to have problems in fulfilling their dreams or having their expectations met. Youth unemployment is a persistent scourge and a drawback to the development of the society as a whole.

Similarly, there has been much talk about “youth entrepreneurship,” but converting this slogan into real opportunities to release the creative skills of our youth, to place faith in them and to provide them with the requisite levels of support to facilitate their economic development is still a long way off. There is the prevailing tendency to try to define for youth their role and level of participation.

In the context of this year’s IYD theme, the area of political engagement needs to be especially addressed, since it is critical if the problems confronting youth are to be tackled successfully. This cannot be done, FOR the youth, it must be done BY them, of course in conjunction with the rest of the society.

Take political representation for instance. The UN points out that whereas 16 per cent of the world’s population is between the ages of 20 and 29, only 1.6 per cent of parliamentarians come from this age group, mostly males. In spite of political parties having “Youth Arms”, the level of political participation by young people, either as members of political parties or actually voting in elections is far from adequate.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but many of them stem from the reluctance of the generation wielding political power to accept young people as equal participants at the decision-making table. For political dialogue to be productive there has to be more than lip-service to it and young people given the opportunity for meaningful participation.

Young people feel frustrated when they see the older generation unwilling to trust them, cede space and to continue to hog the show unnecessarily. It is not that they do not value the experience of the older generation, but that they do not perceive a similar appreciation of what they can bring to the table. If this call for “Youth Civic Engagement” is not to have a hollow ring, then the mechanisms for its practical application must be put in place.

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