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Harnessing the energies of youth

Harnessing the energies of youth – United Nations Special Session on Children

Isaac C. Lamba

Any discussion of children and youth now must inevitably relate to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which provide the road map for human development. The recent United Nations Special Session on Children exposed failures of Governments in creating an enabling environment for youth within the Millennium Goals. Heads of State and Government reaffirmed the crucial importance of recognizing the rights of youth for any development agenda to work. As they conceded, children’s greatest needs and aspirations point to a world that facilitates a rich human development based on “principles and democracy, equality, non-discrimination, peace, social justice and the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights, including the right to development. Children and adolescents are resourceful citizens capable of building a better future for all” [A World Fit for Children]. The Special Session sounded a wake-up call to address the continuing neglect of children and youth i n an uncaring world.

For a long time, the general public has viewed youth as a category wasteful of opportunity through frustration and lawlessness. The negative images of youth, who now form close to a half of the world’s population, exclude and ignore the great potential in them which needs only to be given opportunity, cultivation and guidance.

The goal of a productive world of peace is often marred by selfish individuals in positions of influence, who have no tangible commitment or concern for the enrichment of the human condition of youth in order to launch them into meaningful adulthood. The quality of our young will depend on the bequest they receive; this forms a basic challenge of the twenty-first century. The identified and recognized needs of youth will constitute the agenda of the United Nations to be translated into action through its various agencies. Children need to be listened to for their proper participation in charting out their future as important partners in the custodianship of the world. Productivity in every nation originates from children and youth properly grounded in the cultural, social and economic virtues and aspirations of the nation, which must exclude the dehumanizing and traumatic abduction into training as child soldiers in conflict situations or into forced child labour and prostitution.

In preparation for the Special Session, held from 8 to 10 May 2002, the youth in Malawi convened a “Children’s Parliament” on 16 and 17 August, with the theme “A Malawi Fit for Children”.

Areas of great concern defined by the children, whose recommendations the main Parliament adopted in toto, included education, HIV/AIDS, child participation in decision-making, poverty and the problem of orphans. The enormous challenge for lawmakers in Malawi was the realization of the children’s desire and ability to eloquently articulate concerns affecting them, which called for relevance in policy formulation. Malawian children’s concerns are repeated everywhere in the world, with the problem of violence against children on the list.

According to the Malawi National Youth Policy, factors contributing to the vulnerability of youth include inadequate educational and training facilities, exacerbated by social and cultural practices, early pregnancies and marriages, sexual harassment, violence and exploitation, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, marginalization and non-involvement in decision-making, homelessness, unemployment and lack of sporting and proper entertainment facilities. These areas of preoccupation dovetail with the interests related to the UN mission.

However, for the UN to help harness the energies and potential of youth, Member States need to demonstrate the political and general will to assist them. Malawi President Bakili Muluzi, in a “State of the Nation” address on 31 May, called upon “all people in the country to work on giving our boys and girls equal opportunities to participate in the development of this country. They are our future. This is the time to prepare them for meaningful contribution”.

In Africa, the situation of children and youth has been quite troubling: one in three children suffers from malnutrition; the AIDS pandemic has created huge numbers of orphans; and child labour, sex exploitation and child soldiers in war crises, with their terrible humanitarian tragedies, have impacted negatively the prospects of a humane, educated and enlightened society. Efforts by national governments to address these problems have failed to register much notable success because of the lack of financial resources and capacity. The United Nations has an important role to play here, but we must also recognize its successful performance often depends on the level of investment by the international community in societies riddled by poverty.

If education represents the backbone of socioeconomic empowerment and development, UN agencies, such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Bureau of Education and, to some extent the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the area of vocational training, can make a significant contribution by way of different programmes and projects. The Education for All concept was launched in Jomtien, Cambodia in the early 1990s with great expectations. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) continue to play important supporting roles in addressing the problem of physical infrastructure in education to promote some of the goals of Jomtien. The task for Government is extremely challenging in a poverty stricken country. In Malawi, universal primary education, introduced in 1994 by the United Democratic Front (UDF), has increased enrolment from 1.9 million to about 3.4 million today. This has brought enormous logistical a nd infrastructural problems which, however, should be seen as a stepping stone. Attempts to reduce the gap of educational opportunity to equally empower both girls and boys have formed an important agenda in countries such as Malawi, which has attained sex parity, although as yet only in the first five years of primary school. Out of the 100 million children out of school worldwide, 60 per cent are girls. The United Nations can continue to support the development of physical facilities and appropriate school curriculum, accompanied by incentives for girls. UNICEF has demonstrated conspicuous practical interest in funding curriculum revision, which must now include cross-cutting areas, such as gender and HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS today constitutes the greatest threat to human development. The negative impact comes not just from the loss of millions of lives and the reversal of economic development efforts and insecurity, but also from the plight inflicted on children and youth, most of them in the poverty-ridden developing world. Of the close to 11 million children and youth living with AIDS, 70 per cent are in sub-Saharan Africa, while 12.1 million struggle as AIDS orphans in need of institutionalized care, about 90 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa (1.2 million in Zambia and I million in Malawi). Youth, for their part, need education, information and services that will emphasize self-respect, rights and informed choices to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection, in order to assist the pledges by Governments to visibly cut HIV prevalence among 15- to 24-year-olds by 25 per cent by 2005. HIV/AIDS is a shared concern in the work of UNICEF, UNESCO and UNFPA. UN partnerships with Governments in financial support and te chnical assistance aim at arresting the scourge through training, public education and other interventions, which most Governments, given their poverty, are unable to mount on their own.

The fundamental issue of addressing alternatives that can engage youth profitably to supplement verbal messages through the curriculum and traditional forums must be addressed.

Every child or youth has a right to a dignified life free from exploitation and discrimination in a world that needs to be protected for them. Education without gainful occupation fails to appeal to the youth who see schooling as a gateway to a better economic life.

Governments may have the will to improve the welfare of youth, but lack of resources cripples the optimism. As the UN Secretary-General has noted, goals for youth improvement have been hampered by inadequate government funding–a most critical factor in developing youth capabilities and capacities, and a serious challenge for the UN global agenda in the creation of a world fit for children.

Lack of employment has frequently created a negative incentive to education and has given rise to pursuits, such as substance (drugs) abuse, premarital sex, violence and even crimes of theft. Training youth for self-employment would reduce deviance and promote balanced socio-economic development and dignified ambitions. A UN agency such as the ILO could contribute to this training through support to a college or even setting up a vocational training centre. Skills for building self-reliance would help to reduce youth indiscipline on the streets and in cities.

Youth have enormous mental and physical energy that seek expression. Quite often, official attention to the physical requirement has been minimal. Government investment in community youth recreational centres constitutes positive action as a potent strategy to build self-esteem among them, particularly in the absence of sufficient youth employment.

Support for small business enterprise has sometimes been dubbed risky for funding agencies. Malawi’s experience in giving loans to youths has revealed promise through training. President Muluzi has declared his government’s support for youth employment and entrepreneurship projects and programmes that will assist youth in developing not only skills for sustainable livelihood but also the leadership potential and confidence which the youth of Malawi exhibited during the children’s parliament. As concerns projects and vocational training, the supportive role of the ILO and other UN agencies cannot be overemphasized.

In Bolivia, a moral leadership training programme, with a coverage that includes youth, has shown great promise in the development of character and leadership among young. (One Country, Bahai Magazine, Jan-March 2002). Small youth groups have been organized to undertake community projects, drawing the youth away from unworthy engagements. UNESCO could assist in leadership training.

If youth represent the custodians of the future of the world, they are the determinants of the quality of the world today, which must reflect our contribution to them. Our role is to enrich the process of developing youth into useful, productive and responsible architects of a world of peace. The United Nations in this process must take on and execute a partnership with Governments to ensure the raising of youth well grounded in the commendable socio-economic and cultural virtues for the sustainability of humankind.

Ambassador Isaac C. Lamba is Permanent Representative of the Republic of Malawi to the United Nations. In addition to a distinguished diplomatic career, he has an extensive background in academia.

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