Fostering youth engagement

Fostering youth engagement (Photo courtesy DESA's Division for Social Policy and Development)

What are the main challenges that youth face today when exercising the right to be politically active, to be involved in civil society through youth-led NGOs, and when seeking stable long-term employment? These were among the questions and topics addressed by the Expert Group Meeting on Youth, Development and Rights, organized by DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD) on 13-14 November.

“To be involved we need to have rights,” said Daniela Bas, Director of DSPD, adding that “rights are extremely important, but we need to keep in mind that it is also necessary to build strong social policy frameworks.”

Globally, young people’s involvement in electoral processes remains staggeringly low. Even when young people are of eligible age to vote many are discouraged from doing so due to inaccessible information and processes. In addition, in many countries there exist additional age restrictions to young people’s eligibility to run for office and political positions.

The average age of parliamentarians globally is 54, with many young people feeling unrepresented in the political system. It is no wonder then that many young people forego official political processes as a means to participation and instead turn  to informal non-institutionalized actions, such as demonstrations, protests and social media campaigns. Experts agreed that more needed to be done to ensure young people’s participation in electoral and political processes.

“Age can not be a barrier to political participation. And age should not be a barrier for engagement,” underlined Rathika Sitsabaiesan, Ontario’s youngest Member of Parliament, the first woman and first person of colour to be elected to represent the constituency at the federal level. “Also, the dismissal of young people, especially young women, is very common in politics.”

Throughout their discussions, experts focused on the fact that modern political systems do not fully respond to the needs and demands of youth. Youth-led organizations therefore fill the gap and provide platforms and tools for young people to discuss and address emerging issues. However, such organizations tend to lack sustainable funding and can often face difficulties in ensuring continuity of volunteers and recognition.

During the meeting the experts, who included representatives from youth-led organizations, the UN system, trade unions, academia, as well as young entrepreneurs and politicians,  tried to answer how a more inclusive structure for young people’s participation could be fostered. They focused their conversation on whether the age for voting and eligibility for running for office should be lowered, as well as how to ensure the sustainable development of youth-led structures.

Day two of the Expert Group Meeting focused on overcoming the barriers and challenges to young people’s engagement in economic life. Discussions centred around the global jobs crisis facing young people, and the means and methods used in ensuring that young people have the chance to find decent jobs.

Skills and qualifications recognition was central to the conversation, with experts agreeing that for young people to secure decent jobs, more action was needed to ensure that their qualifications and skills, whether received in formal or non formal settings were recognised by employers and educational institutions alike.

The final session of the EGM focused on the various challenges facing young people once they have accessed the jobs market – in particular, the trend towards weaker contracts and benefits for young workers was discussed, as well as how many young people are forced to work numerous unpaid internships before gaining employment. Experts recommended that better legislation and safeguards were needed to ensure the rights of young workers in the workplace.

Finally, the EGM heard from two young people on their experience of youth entrepreneurship. Despite young people being keen innovators of ideas and new businesses, they can face tougher challenges and barriers to getting their ideas and businesses off the ground than their older counterparts. Restrictions in terms of access to financial services, such as credit and loans, lack of financial literacy education, as well as a suspicious attitude from financial institutions to young people, were deemed as the key challenges facing young entrepreneurs where an ease in legislative and regulatory restrictions was recommended.

The experts drafted a set of key recommendations based on the outcomes of the two days which included an ease in restrictions to access of financial services, better recognition of non formal skills and qualifications, lowering of age restrictions in political processes as well as increased support and funding to youth led structures and initiatives. A report containing all recommendations will be available in the coming weeks.

Throughout all the discussions, particular attention was given to ensuring the rights and participation of young women, indigenous youth, migrant youth, youth with disabilities and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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