Challenges and hope for world's indigenous youth

Photo: Broddi Sigurdarson, Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues/DESA

The world has never faced such a large youth population as the one inhabiting the globe today, with about 40 per cent of the world population under the age of 25. With the recent economic crisis and high unemployment rates, there are many challenges facing today’s young generation. The world’s 67 million indigenous youth face even greater challenges, but have big hopes.

To address these issues, indigenous youth experts from around the world gathered for an expert group meeting in New York focusing on “Indigenous Youth: Identity, Challenges and Hope: Articles 14, 17, 21 and 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” on 29-31 January.

Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Affairs in DESA, outlined some of the main challenges as she addressed the meeting. “They face higher levels of illiteracy rates, drop out rates and other indicators and they tend to experience lower enrollment ratios, higher unemployment rates and lower incomes. Indigenous youth struggle to develop and define their identities, maintain their cultures and preserve and revitalize their languages,” Ms. Akhtar said.

With youth representatives from countries including Australia, Canada, Finland, Peru and Uganda, the meeting looked closer at issues of identity, challenges and hope. The meeting also analyzed how international human rights standards and policies can be more responsive to advancing the rights of indigenous youth. Vast documentation is available online from seven indigenous youth experts examining these topics.

Meenakshi Munda, who is an indigenous youth from the Munda community of Jharkhand, India, attended the meeting in her role as President of the Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network (APIYN). Speaking with UN Radio, Ms. Munda underscored the importance of rejuvenating indigenous languages to protect the identity of indigenous communities and the rich culture and wisdom preserved in this way.

Describing the knowledge the elders in her community has in medicine and plants she said, “this knowledge is intact in mother tongue. If we want to learn that, we have to learn indigenous language. Also, our oral history is intact in mother tongue, so if we want to know our own history, we have to know our own culture, our own language”, she explained.

“It is of course important that the UN now puts more focus on indigenous youth because if we look at indigenous peoples as a whole, the youth are the most important group. It is our responsibility to continue our language, traditions and cultures,” said Tuomas Aslak Juuso, President of the National Finnish Sámi Youths, as he spoke with UN Radio. Mr. Juuso, who has been promoting the rights of the Sámi in Finland over the past decade and who is also the co-chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, emphasized the importance of being able to use your own language and to continue traditional livelihoods.

At the meeting, Ms. Akhtar described youth as “our global asset” and their role as critical for both social and economic stability. She further stated that a “younger generation of indigenous population can be promising for their community if their vitality and vigor is appropriately unleashed and they can transform the overall indigenous community’s destiny. Youth drives idealism, creativity, entrepreneurship and with appropriate support can help make the world a better place”.

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