This year’s International Youth Day feels a bit subdued and overwhelming because the scale of the problems to overcome have some how become even greater. It is well documented that COVID 19 has exacerbated existing inequalities across the world with respect to access to resources, information and power dynamics, and, disproportionately affected millions of children and young people worldwide, with public health restrictions and socio-economic disruptions having a devastating impact on their education, mental health, career prospects, safety and personal development. The uncertainty and fear for what the future holds is very real and is the new norm.
Due to the lockdowns, children and young people (with girls and young women in particular) have been affected, missing out on education with those without digital access and a suitable home learning environment being particularly disadvantaged. Many young people who have been in temporary or informal jobs, and in sectors worst affected by the pandemic are now suffering high levels of unemployment and future job insecurity. Lockdowns have seen an increase in gender-based and interpersonal violence and more children are living in unsafe homes with reduced access to support. This has caused even more stress on young people as research carried out by World Vision has shown that school disruption, emotional distress due to social distancing and increasing poverty have had tremendous impacts on the lives of children and young people on a massive scale. These have long term repercussions not only for young people but for communities and governments who have the responsibility to look after the interests of youth.
Despite all these challenges, young people all over the world are and have been providingsupport to one another and their communities in need. For those working with young people,they are considered a resource with scope and scale, and their meaningful engagement is key to building not only more resilient, adaptive, and non-violent communities, but resilient institutions too. From work done by youth organisations on the ground, we know that the untold story of Covid is of young people as the solution, not the problem. At the end of last year, a Global Youth Mobilization initiative was launched by the global Big 6 youth organisations to highlight and promote young people, their ideas, and their innovative solutions to the impact of Covid and the many community challenges that have come with it. Projects being supported by the initiative have included youth-run programmes across countries and communities addressing mental and physical health, mitigating the impact of disruption to education, training in digital skills, improving employability through support to livelihoods and financial literacy, vocational training and skills provision, vaccine awareness and other forms of Covid-19 prevention. So, what these projects show is that given a platform, agency and inter-generational accompaniment, young people can become partners in providing solutions.
On International Youth Day questions are asked as to how youth engagement can be strengthened to make use of the opportunity to overcome the covid 19 challenges. A new discussion paper released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) for international youth day aims to situate this debate around young people and COVID-19. It aims to contribute to a more holistic and intersectional understanding of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will have on the constituency of children,adolescents, and young adults. By placing the constituency of children, adolescents, and young adults at the centre, this discussion paper chooses to challenge thematic and programmatic silos that usually govern humanitarian and development aid. By focusing on the challenges faced by young people because of COVID-19, the discussion paper calls for transformative recommendations to scale up the engagement of young people not only as members of affected communities but to engage them within the institutions as well. Thus,there is a need to strengthen institutional capabilities to address obstacles to elevate well-being and protection. By meaningfully engaging with a youth constituency, institutions can address fractures in today’s fragmented and divided world where fear and xenophobia can flare up.
It is now, more than ever that we can see the power and agency young people have despite the challenges they face. The current pandemic will have a lasting impact on the youth of the world, which is why this is the time to take action to ensure young people are driving change rather than being impacted by it negatively. Policy makers must listen to children and young people and put them, their views, needs and experiences at the heart of the solutions. A healthy, vibrant, and further strengthened youth sector is vital to ensure that young people thrive and overcome the challenges of the future with the support of those around them. This starts at the local level with young people from local communities being given agency and taking responsibility for solving problems at their community.
Young people will help us bring humanity together, build bridges over the deep valleys of division and help us to start living in a world, where saving just one life matter. Recognition of their unique role, trust and power sharing, commitment and accountability, and action with impact are the critical ingredients of collective success and continuity.
(Amjad Mohamed Saleem is a political scientist with extensive knowledge and experience on peace building, humanitarian affairs and development work. He has a particular interest on interfaith conflict resolution and a focus on South Asia. He has worked for different international organisations on peace building and humanitarian action).