Young people in Colombia face some of the biggest obstacles but are often sidelined and ignored.
Sunday August 12 was International Youth Day. This year the theme was “Constructing a Better World: Partnering with Youth”, aiming to make visible young people as fundamental actors in the development of countries and to recognize the potential of their participation and achievement of their rights.
It’s also a perfect moment to pause and consider what exactly is this vague category of ‘youth’ and why might it be important to recognize them on both an international scale and in Colombia. Presently young people under 24 account for almost 40% of the global population. In Colombia, 37% of the total population is under 20 years old—that’s over one third. Most of these young people are already employed, in relationships, and vote; many have children of their own. For some, along with their families, they’ve escaped wars, survived natural disasters, faced epidemic disease or malnutrition, and seen family and close friends not be as fortunate.
In Colombia, many young people are profoundly affected by the conflict, and associated disruptions to primary services and to opportunities to advance. Only 1 in 3 young people makes it to university in Colombia. According to Profamilia, 1 in 5 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 has been pregnant. Over 60% of them did not want to become pregnant at all, or wanted to have children later in their life. Around 40% of new HIV/AIDS infections in Colombia are in young people under 20. 15% of young men are unemployed, and that figure jumps to 25% when considering young women. These are challenging statistics, intimately linked to structural problems and deeply embedded vulnerabilities and exclusions. They definitely do not have simple answers.
Yet, it is obvious that young people are also the future. This sounds trite because it is over-used. But there is a core truth here. They are, inescapably, the people who will inherit the social, economic, environmental, and political successes and failures of today. Investing in young people, allowing them to access education, health services, and dignified work, is the best investment a country can make. Young men and women, who are supported, are able to contribute effectively to society, and to take steps to break cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement.
This week Tania Patriota, the U.N. Population Fund’s representative in Colombia noted “if you do not invest in young people now, you run the risk of having a population that ages in ongoing conditions of poverty and vulnerability”. Public policy must focus on the active participation of young people, and must see them not only as the creators of problems, but rather as potential contributors of positive change and as having a huge potential to construct and strengthen the social fabric of their communities. In this way youth participation and the concept of youth citizenship must be supported and positive to generate confidence amongst young people.
Colombia does have a National ‘Youth Law’—Ley 375, 1997—, which was created in consultation with young people and key stakeholders. Its aim is to stimulate active participation of youth in social, economic and political issues of national development. The State is meant to guarantee the promotion of the rights of youth. However, there have been challenges, as there has not been the successful creation of a policy framework to implement the goals of the Law. At the time of creating the Law, youth offices were established, along with a Vice-Ministry of Youth. With the exception of the Medellin Youth Office which created a local policy, the success of these organizations has been limited.
‘Youth’ pose more complex challenges than ‘children’, as they begin to participate in the ‘adult’ world of society, employment, family, and politics. Frequently, they continue to not be visible in key discussions, not seen as key stakeholders, or key advisors. Adults tend to see young people through the lens of their own concerns and beliefs. It is accepted as perfectly logical that adolescents should be seen and not heard. The tendency to neglect the voice and engagement of young people is worsened by poverty, economic marginalization but also other prejudices which exclude them from fully participating in their society.
Questions must be asked about the commitment of adults who hold the reins of power in Colombia to genuinely engage with young people, and respect and acknowledge their participation. The fact that Colombia, at the highest level, has, in the past, recognized the importance of young people’s participation, throws the statistics mentioned earlier into sharp relief. If it is known and recognized that engaging young people promotes better development outcomes, how come young people continue to be marginalized economically, socially, and politically, and disproportionately suffer in the areas of education, health and development?
Young people might be the future, but they are also bearing the brunt of the challenges of the present. Supporting them, listening to them, engaging with them about what matters in their life, would give them the best opportunities, and will positively affect all of Colombian society. Many people and organizations are already committed to doing this. Following International Youth Day, we all should ask, what more can we do to support young people in building the best possible lives for themselves?
Source: Colombia Reports