When I was in high school we were often told to pen essays on generic topics like ‘Environment’, or ‘Health’ or ‘Education’. ‘Youth’ was definitely a recurring favorite with the teachers. I remember writing one thing over and over: that youth were the leaders of tomorrow. That it is the youth who will build this nation in the future – or something along those lines because that’s what I kept hearing and seeing whenever there was something happening related to youth. I had no clue what it actually meant but I didn’t care for it much since it got me happy nods from the teachers.
Fast-forward to many years later and it is still something I keep hearing. In addition to being an overtired cliché, it also cannot be any further away from the truth. ‘Youth’ has been romanticized so much that it has become one of those vague concepts in the world of development that, unintentionally though might be, everyone talks about but no one is really sure what it means. And I am guilty of this as well. That is until I started working with young people and learning to unpack the previously alien romance that was ‘youth’. The more I learn, the more I believe in the power of young people – not just to lead the world of tomorrow but of today`s as well. We can`t expect the youth to be leaders for a future when they are not a part of in the first place. They can`t not be a part of the equation. Basic math.
Last August, I was asked to present the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security at the local event. It is not every day that you get to be part of such a milestone event. I am embarrassed to admit this but I only heard about this Resolution a couple of weeks before the event. As someone working for the UN in the area of youth empowerment one would think it’s something I should be aware of. I guess once you start seeing one too many important strategies and policies on things like this, it ironically becomes more and more difficult to keep up. This, however, was different. A Security Council Resolution does not come by easy. And certainly not the one on youth and its role in the global agenda on peace and security. After all, these were things that held immense political weight and usually only reserved for “more important” things like geopolitical issues, peace deals, or high-level negotiations, right? Why should youth be of any concern to important people in grey suites trying to resolve the planet`s most protracted conflicts? And even if it WAS, at the global level, why should it be a big deal over here in the Maldives?
In preparing for the presentation, I began by devotedly studying through the text of the Resolution. First I struggled in finding a perfect angle to explain how this global document adopted thousands of miles across the world could make sense in the context of my island homeland. Then when I started looking at it through the prism of its five pillars – participation, protection, prevention, partnerships, and disengagement and reintegration – I could clearly relate to it. Although coming from peaceful low-laying islands that have never experienced a violent conflict in its recent political history, I was able to perfectly see how the principles laid out in the document were linked to the voices of the Maldivian youth. I rushed to the Facebook page of the Mashakee Mabeynumee (‘I Am, I Want’), a photo campaign supported by a local youth led organization, Dhi Youth Movement, and found answers to my questions. On these photographs my fellow Maldivians were vividly raising the issues that were so well depicted by the dry language of the Resolution.
Maldives is the youngest it has ever been with almost half (47 percent) of the country’s population younger than 25 years old according to the 2014 census results. Being already vulnerable to a number of socio-economic and health related factors, this increases the complexity of youth issues multifold. According to a recent report by the World Bank:
“Maldivian youth face the shackles of the limited island economy, lack empowerment and community engagement, and contend with rigid norms of behavior and increasingly conservative values, as well as an inadequate education and training system that ill prepares them for the labor market.” (Youth in the Maldives: Shaping a New Future for Young Women and Men Through Engagement and Empowerment, World Bank, 2014)
Add to this mix the peace and security angle and it paints an even dire picture.
In a country that is undergoing political upheavals on a constant basis, being kept away from the drawing board means that young people are becoming more cynical and passive. Or even worse but sadly more likely– they end up as perpetrators and victims of criminal behavior. The nation’s growing crime and drug issues are testament to this.
The constant projection of youth as idle or lazy has left us with a large group of young women and men who may never realize their true potential. The lack of representation of young women and men in the decision making process had added to this expanding vacuum. If we don’t fix this problem, in addition to the plethora of social issues that will branch out, more and more young people will be driven to extremist groups where they are recognized as individuals with voices. In fact, this is already happening in our backyard. The ripple effect that this will have on the society for generations to come will be insurmountable and irreversible.
This is why we need to recognize the role of young people as peace builders not only on the global level, but also nationally and locally. It is only by working with young people that we can tackle these challenges as a nation. As bleak as the situation may seem to be, all is not lost. Not even close. My experience with young people tells me otherwise. In addition to the contagious positive energy that they bring to the table, I’m constantly inspired by their passion to shake things up and do more. They are carriers of innovative ideas, implementers of pragmatic creativity and agents of positive change. So it just makes no sense to me that youth are kept in the sidelines while the rest of world decides their life for them. The resolution (albeit in more sophisticated terms) calls for just that.
So yes, youth is a big deal. Their role as peace builders and is an even bigger deal. It is very real and present, and cannot be ignored any longer. And there is nothing romantic about it.
Yasmin Rasheed, 27, is a Project Coordinator with the Integrated Governance Programme (IGP) at UNDP Maldives. She holds a BA degree in liberal arts from University of Pune, India, and a MA degree in Public Policy from the University of Sydney, Australia. Previously she worked at the Department of National Planning. Follow Yasmin on Twitter @.