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Safe spaces for youth

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When you hear that there are thousands of young people who don’t qualify after their O/L examinations, and there are hundreds of thousands more not in employment, education, or in formal training at any given time, it is a stark reminder of how vulnerable young people are. 

We say that our youth carry with them the hope of the world, but who carries them? Young people are increasingly vulnerable in a world filled with conflict, violence, drug and human trafficking, the spread of disease, natural disasters, lack of education - and the list just goes on. Somehow every trial of the world seems to affect young people the most. Young Sri Lankans, in particular, lived in volatility for almost three decades during the war, and almost a decade later, we are still experiencing the remnants and repercussions of communal violence. 

In Sri Lanka, close to a quarter of our population is estimated to be youth between the ages of 15-29 years. According to available data, close to 98% are literate. We have numerous national policies that are in place to empower our youth.  There are many actors, state and non-state, global and local, continuing to invest in youth. Despite all the good intentions, investments and policies that exist, there are many areas which require urgent attention. Youth unemployment continues to be one of the biggest issues, and there are serious concerns regarding skills mismatch as well. 

It is also a known fact that a lot of youth in Sri Lanka are looking for the easy way out. School drop-out rates are increasing, as easier ways of making money are presented. For instance, young boys would rather purchase a three-wheeler and earn a daily wage, rather than complete their education and find employment.  Even when they complete their education, often, many young people would want to secure a ‘Government’ job than considering the corporate sector or becoming an entrepreneur.   

The issues faced by young people are complex, and requires interventions and programs that cater to the aspirations of today’s youth to become future-fit.  We need to build platforms that enables young people to champion and thrive in a competitive global market.  The world’s young people need safe spaces -- public, civic, physical and digital spaces where they can freely express their views and pursue their dreams. 

Everyone working towards empowering our youth needs to come together. We need more coordinated efforts, we need further investment in skills development and education, especially in STEM education. Trainings offered should look at future jobs and youth need more spaces and opportunities to build life skills and learn. As they are the torch-bearers of tomorrow, it is also imperative to create safe spaces where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves. While there are many types of spaces, safe spaces ensure the dignity and safety of youth.

On 12 August, we celebrate International Youth Day (IYD) and this year, the focus is on “SafeSpaces4Youth”.  In Sri Lanka, a platform is currently being designed and developed by the Ministry of Youth Affairs, with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), to empower the youth of Sri Lanka through a more coordinated approach. Through this partnership, a Comprehensive Youth Development Program for Sri Lanka will be developed, and will identify key areas for strategic interventions and provide a framework for integrated youth development programming.  The UNDP is also working in partnership with the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Telecommunications, the National Youth Services Council and the Information Communication and Technology Agency of Sri Lanka to promote social innovation and youth entrepreneurship through the National Youth Social Innovation Challenge, which is a national platform facilitating youth to become social entrepreneurs. 

These are just a couple of strategic initiatives. There are many more by many others. If we are to truly realise the vision of building a future-fit youth, as we mark another IYD, we need to commit to engage more young people in our work, listen to their aspirations, provide spaces and platforms for them to feel safe and thrive, and to work in a more coordinated way to empower our youth. 

(The writer is Partnerships and Youth Focal Point, UNDP Sri Lanka Lab Lead a.i. Citra Social Innovation Lab) 

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