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Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century

[Kenya] A young boy peers through a gate in Korogocho slums, Nairobi. Young people have tremendous capacity for inventiveness that can be exploited by implementing youth-friendly policies and by giving them the chance to effectively shape the society they Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
A young boy peers through a gate in Korogocho slums, Nairobi

The largest-ever generation of young people is now entering the transition from childhood to adulthood. According to UN statistics, up to 48 percent of the world population is under the age of 24 and 86 percent of 10-to-24-year-olds live in less developed countries.

However, one can hardly speak about youth as a uniform category when across the world the disparity of access to resources and lifestyles between different groups of youths is so different. In many parts of the world, young people are still suffering from hunger, lack of access to education, health services and job opportunities, and are exposed to insecurity and violence.

According to the UN Programme on Youth (UN-DESA, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs): "The challenges are clear: 200 million youth live on less than US $1 a day, 130 million are illiterate, 10 million live with HIV, and 88 million young people are unemployed."

What future for the new generation?

To a large extent, the quality of life for the next generation and society will depend on how today's young people manage their transition to economic independence in difficult environments, such as countries hit by economic recession, or war or famine, or in areas plagued by HIV/AIDS, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

While most acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been achieved to improve young peoples' lives and ability to become catalysts for change, there remain many obstacles to overcome for the next generation.

How to address the plight of the estimated 14 million children orphaned by AIDS? UNICEF estimates that, with global infection rates still rising, this number will exceed 25 million by 2010. HIV/AIDS is increasingly a disease of the young and takes a heavy toll on the youth, especially girls living in sub-Saharan Africa (see HIV/AIDS feature).

Women are also particularly targeted by the thriving trafficking business worldwide; with an estimated 700,000 to two million women trafficked across international borders annually: girls are lured into subjugation by false employment promises, daughters are sold by their impoverished families, or forced into marriage or the sex trade, or forced to become bonded labourers or domestic servants.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, (UNODC): "[Human trafficking] is believed to be growing fastest in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In Asia, girls from villages in Nepal and Bangladesh - the majority of whom are under 18 - are sold to brothels in India for $1,000."

One other area of concern is the growing urbanisation rate that is taking place, mostly in developing nations, that is predicted to peak in the years to come (see Urban Youth feature). As youth migrate to towns in search of a better life, their future might be compromised by the limited opportunities they find once there, as urban settings offer insufficient infrastructures and school and health facilities for all.

Today, UN-HABITAT estimates the proportion of slum-dwellers is 72 and 60 percent of the urban population in Africa and South Central Asia respectively, the majority of whom are young people. As young people gather in overcrowded shantytowns, with water and housing shortages, their susceptibility to crime is likely to increase.

Violence remains one of the leading causes of death for youth and young adults. In many parts of the world, the loss of life in countries affected by armed conflict is high, particularly for the youth (see Youth and War feature). Two million children have been killed in conflicts in the last decade, one million orphaned, and six million wounded. Three-hundred thousand youths are serving as child soldiers, with many girls forced into sexual slavery.

The situation of young people caught in protracted humanitarian crises, abducted by rebel groups at war, or forced to flee conflict is particularly worrisome. In Northern Uganda, one of the countries with the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, nearly one million young people have fled their homes and the fighting. This means a great deal in terms of lost opportunities and uncertainty about the future.

"We don't know what we would like to be when we get older. We haven't thought about it, because we haven't been to school," a group of young people in Uganda's Arum camp told IRIN.

The frustration of youth is all the more poignant when it comes to migration opportunities - or the lack of them - which greatly affects thousands of young people in developing nations who are denied upward socio-economic mobility.

Current news reports give almost daily examples of young African migrants wishing to escape poverty, risking their lives en route to Europe in search of jobs.

According to the Spanish Red Cross, more than 1,000 migrants drowned off the coast of the Canary Islands in the first three months of 2006. They had been attempting to reach Europe from Senegal (see Migration feature).

While globalisation and greater access to media tend to create a new global culture shared by youth all over the world, some young people, especially in less developed countries, become more aware of the benefits they could have if they lived in Western countries.

The experience of being young therefore sharply differs from the relative luxury of developed countries to poorer countries in transition.

Poverty reduction Vs rising population

Statistics vary across countries and continents, with Asia hosting the majority of the world's youth. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), there are 850 million people aged between 10 and 24 living in Asia and the Pacific region.

However, while east and southeast Asia have shown a strong performance in terms of poverty reduction and economic growth, sub-Saharan Africa remains a region of special concern because of the scale of the AIDS pandemic, natural disasters, and devastating conflicts affecting its population. Demographic experts are particularly worried by the region's population rates, which have grown faster than any region of the world in recent decades. Africa is a continent of young people, with over 60 percent of people aged under 25 (see map).

According to a study by the US National Research Council, "Growing Up Global: the Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries (2005)", while standards of living have improved for many of the current generation, changing demographic patterns have become a special area of concern: "…because of rapid population growth, young people who are poor are about as numerous today as they were in the past despite declining poverty rates."

What is youth?

"Youth" is hard to define. While UN legal standards consider individuals under 18 as children, youth is usually understood as a much 'looser' concept, generally encompassing the age group 15 to 24. Individuals aged 15 to 18 are thus included in the legal definition of children.

However, others consider age-based definitions arbitrary due to culture differences. Some argue that Western definitions of age do not align with non-Western definitions of childhood and youth.

In traditional African societies for instance, youth includes younger ages such as 12, and older ages up to 35. Attaining adulthood can mean the ability to support a household, or for males, the capacity to fight. Girls are considered adult after they reach sexual maturity

According to Bilal al-Naaim, deputy head of the Lebanon-based Shia Muslim armed group Hezbollah, involving young people in military activities is not wrong.

"In Islam, a 15-year-old is considered a responsible adult," he told IRIN.

Although adolescence is not recognised in all cultures, some United Nations bodies, such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), have defined "youth" as 10- to 19-years-old.

A 'protracted' transition

The roles young people are forced to assume in countries affected by war or poverty greatly affects the transitional phase to adulthood, which takes place at an earlier stage than their Western counterparts.

The lack of economic opportunities in less developed countries makes young people more dependent on their parents. This places them in a situation where they are no longer children, but where they are also deprived of the independence they seek.

Without the opportunity to become productive, young people find themselves in a permanent limbo, waiting for a chance to gain economic independence and psychological maturity.

When lacking opportunities and means of expression, young people become susceptible to violence, a display of their wish to become more powerful, and have access to the material goods they crave.

Dunia Bakuluea, youth official in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), told IRIN: "The erosion of traditional values among the youth is strongly related to the collapse of the economy. As a result, many young people can't afford to settle and are still not married even though they have reached their thirties.

"Many boys hang out in bands and organise themselves in armed clandestine networks, making a living out of illegal trading and as "coupeurs de route" (road bandits). Some come from the militias where they acquired the knowledge of warfare and a tendency to violence," he added.

While wide-scale youth movements were considered an exciting and dynamic medium of political change in the past, most notably during the independence struggles of the 1960s, young people are now increasingly perceived as threats to the societies in which they live.

Youth in crisis

In the 1990s, armed violence notched up a gear with an alarming increase in civil unrest in which young people played a crucial role, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries such as Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and DRC (see Youth and War section). This phenomenon, associated with a growing number of failed states and collapsed economies, led some analysts such as anthropologist Paul Richards to speak about a 'crisis of youth', or the emergence of a 'lost generation'.

As violence and armed conflict continue unabated in many areas of the world - Afghanistan, Columbia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, and in the Palestinian territories - there is growing concern for young people who were born and who are growing up in environments fraught with difficulty.

In 2005, children were involved in 54 conflicts in 11 different countries, according to the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

Reflecting on the protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Palestinian father of a suicide-bomber told IRIN: "This generation has grown up with explosions, shootings, violence, demolitions … so what can you expect?"

The main threat to youth is demographic. According to the World Development Report 2007, the number of young people will dramatically increase in the next 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle-East (Gaza, Iraq, Yemen).

Having too many young people in one area is conflict-conducive according to Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, in his book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order".

In a recent interview, he said: "The key factor is the demographic factor. Generally speaking, the people who go out and kill other people are males between the ages of 16 and 30. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s there were high birth rates in the Muslim world, and this has given rise to a huge youth bulge."

This rationale has been used in US foreign politics to explain current political instability and the growth of terrorism networks in the Arab world.

Out of work…

It is generally thought that the main factor driving young people to violence is not the attraction of violence itself, or their interest in radical politics, but the lack of socio-economic alternatives. According to political scientist, Henrik Urdal: "For large youth groups, the economic climate at the time they enter the labour market is particularly crucial."

Out of work and out of school, many young people have to cope with their lives in environments that offer insufficient incentives for them to feel their future is secure (see Employment and Education section).

According to the 2006 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on Global Employment Trends for Youth, most regions saw increases in the number of unemployed youth between 1995 and 2005, with youth in the Middle East and North Africa hardest hit with an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent.

These figures are exacerbated by the fact that millions of young people are forced to find work in the informal economy, where wages are barely enough for subsistence. According to the report: "Almost 23 percent of young people are extremely poor (living on US $1 a day) despite the fact that they work."

Sayed, 16, had to leave high school in Kabul, Afghanistan, in order to support his family by working in a tiny workshop repairing tyres.

"I abandoned my school because there is no one in my house to work and support my family after the death of my father," he told IRIN.

Sayed is one of millions of young people who, being at a critical stage in their lives, have struggled to get proper education and make ends meet.

"I have to work hard, otherwise I am afraid we will be obliged to beg for our survival in the bazaar because there is no assistance from anywhere," added Sayed.

The ILO warns that "at least 400 million decent employment opportunities are needed in order to reach the full productive potential of today's youth". As this is an almost certainly unattainable target in the short term, negative political, social and humanitarian repercussions seem inevitable.

As Khalid, 13, a young Iraqi explained to IRIN: "My family needs money and we cannot find a job anywhere, so I decided to help a gang specialised in kidnapping. For each kidnap I get $100 and it is enough to help my family with food for the whole month."

...and out of school

At the root of youth unemployment lie serious problems related to illiteracy and the lack of technical skills. According to the World Youth Report 2003, "113 million primary school-age children were not in school in 2000. These children will become the next generation of illiterate youth, replacing the current group of an estimated 130 million."

However, research shows that there has been overall progress in the number of young people attending school worldwide, although the gains are uneven across regions and gender.

Of particular concern is the increasing gap between male and female literacy rates in Asia and Africa, which puts poor young girls at a particular disadvantage in comparison with their male counterparts.

However, evidence suggests that education is not a panacea per se, and "labour markets in many countries are presently unable to accommodate the expanding pools of skilled young graduates," according to the 2005 World Youth Report.

Also, it is now acknowledged that more attention should be given to the quality and relevancy of education itself. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on youth in Central Asia, stressed the extent to which young people are dissatisfied with their education system, thus considerably limiting enrolment, and encouraging dropout.

"I study computers, and we have no textbook in our class. So I have to buy a textbook in the market at 800 soms (US $20) which represents more than my father's monthly salary," a student in Kyrgyztan told ICG researchers.

Decimated by HIV/AIDS

Another factor affecting school attendance in developing countries is the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is the leading cause of death among young people in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the US-based NGO, Advocate for Youth, "Young people infected with or affected by HIV or AIDS often face disrupted schooling due to demands at home for their help, the inability of sick or stressed parents to pay school fees, and stigma and discrimination."

Conversely, many analysts argue that adequate education can lead to substantial progress in halting the pandemic and improving the general wellbeing of the younger generation. According to the 2001 UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, illiteracy is among the "principal contributing factors to the spread of HIV/AIDS".

In Mozambique, 62 percent of young women, and 74 percent of young men, could not name a single method of protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS. Moreover, most young people living with HIV/AIDS do not know that they have the disease, according to a 2004 report by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS.

All experts acknowledge that efficient measures to tackle HIV/AIDS should target youth, specifically young women: "More than a third of all people living with HIV/AIDS are under the age of 25, and almost two-thirds of them are women according to UNICEF."

The way ahead

How can young people become dynamic contributors and participators in the society they are born in? How is it possible to harness the tremendous power of inventiveness of the developing countries' populous new generation?

In 1995, the UN World Programme of Action for Youth, WPAY, established 10 priority areas for action, comprising: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, and full and effective participation of youth in society and decision-making.

This programme was renewed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to include five new priority areas: mixed impact of globalisation on young women and men; use of and access to information and technologies; dramatic increase in the incidence of HIV infection among young people and the impact of the epidemic on their lives; active involvement of young people in armed conflict, both as victims and as perpetrators; and increased importance of addressing intergenerational issues in an ageing society.

As the international community becomes more aware of the challenges youth face all over the world, there is an urgent need to better understand the factors that lead youth to "crisis" and which push them towards despair and violence. How can we help the next generation of young people in fast-growing sub-Saharan Africa if poverty rates increase?

Being at a critical stage in their lives, young people are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses and are far more exposed to risky behaviour than their elders as they strive to emerge in societies that give them little outlet for their talents and energy.

The predicament of disenchanted youth is particularly striking in the developing world, where millions have difficulty making ends meet. Living on the fringe of society, eking out a living on the black market, they are at an added risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

Rampant poverty and the lack of alternatives make them all the more prone to fill the economic vacuum by enlisting in armed factions or street gangs, or become drawn into sexual exploitation. Even if they escape the pull of vice or crime, most will have few skills or training to help them contribute to their societies, and will see them swell the ranks of the low-paid. In this context, the future of the next generation greatly depends on how countries in transition will cope with a population explosion of young people, who have increasing demands and expectations.


[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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