HomeOpinion & AnalysisYouth participation, engagement in building democratic resilience

Youth participation, engagement in building democratic resilience

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Åsa Pehrson/ Maria Ribeiro

SIX-YEARS-AGO, 193 UN member States rolled up their sleeves to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a global call to action to end poverty, inequality and to tackle climate change, while ensuring no one is left behind.

Although 2030 seems distant, it is less than a decade or only two electoral cycles away in many countries.

On the occasion of this year’s International Day of Democracy in Zimbabwe, the United Nations and the Embassy of Sweden have elected to commemorate youth for democratic resilience. On this occasion, we call on national and local leaders to create opportunities for the youth to meaningfully participate in decision making and ensure ownership of the SDGs, and to be part of shaping their future in Zimbabwe. With its largely youthful population, Zimbabwe could benefit from a demographic dividend though a combination of strategic investments and the adoption of a supportive policy environment. Closing the gap between youth and their leaders is critical to strengthening the resilience of democratic institutions. Achieving a robust human development trajectory requires an equitable and democratic development agenda that guarantees higher standards of education, nutrition, sexual and reproductive health services, health for all and a green growth strategy that balances the management of natural resources with demands of development imperatives.

Therefore, if development entails the improvement in people’s standard of living — their incomes, health outcomes, education levels, and general wellbeing — and if it also encompasses their self-esteem, respect, dignity, and freedom to choose, then the country must concentrate on addressing the underlying social, economic, and political conditions related to improving the participation of youth in democratic resilience.

Some strategies have shown to be essential in this context:

First, children and youth should participate in political discourse and democratic processes, including in multilateral fora. Many of the youth in Zimbabwe have already been engaging with the United Nations and bilateral donors, including Sweden at youth-focused events, through model UN, climate action conferences, democracy talks, advocacy on SDG and other topical issues. This participation is essential to having young people’s positions and views reflected in the national development priorities.

Second, it is important to ensure the right of girls and young women to education. While education is a human right, it is also an indispensable means by which girls and young women can realise all the other rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, indeed, in the Constitution.

Levels of poverty remain stubbornly high throughout the country and have resulted in a decrease in school attendance. Young girls are at risk of losing access to education as parents are more likely to send young boys to school if a choice must be made, while young girls are married off early for wealth creation. Out-of-school girls are more vulnerable to early sexual debut, teenage pregnancies, and childbearing. This in turn may result is sexual exploitation, an increased risk of HIV infection and other undesirable outcomes of sexual encounters.

Denial of the right to education leads to exclusion from the labour market and marginalisation into the informal sector, unpaid work, or early marriages. This perpetuates and increases women’s poverty and contributes to poor literacy.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, graduating from high school alone increases working mothers’ earnings by over US$1,60 per hour (over US$3 300 per year). In contrast, each year of work experience is worth only 10 cents per hour.

Third, sexual and reproductive health rights save lives and have long been considered key components of socioeconomic development. In 2019, 7,1% of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 married before the age of 15.

Most women, who get married at a younger age are often in intergenerational marriages, thus increasing their vulnerability to poor health outcomes due to early childbearing and abuse owing to unequal power dynamics.

Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate remains worryingly high. When women and couples are provided with adequate sexual and reproductive health information and services, including family planning, we can ensure that every child is wanted, and every birth is safe. And we can enhance youth participation, particularly that of young women and girls in the fight for equality and to end poverty.

Fourth, improved coverage and quality of health, water, and sanitation services for those who lack them would do much to reduce the burden of water-related diseases and to improve quality of life. Studies have consistently shown that improvements in water and sanitation coverage — including the implementation of low-cost, simple technology systems — can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea, cholera, and other water-related diseases.

Furthermore, provision of water and sanitation confers multiple benefits beyond reducing water-related diseases, including alleviating the time and economic burden of having to collect water thereby also ensuring that women and girls who often bear the burden of walking long distances to fetch water are not exposed to personal security risks.

Fifth, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a deep and disproportionate impact on youth and youth entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe. Although the youth have in many cases risen to the challenge by showcasing innovative responses to the pandemic from a wide range of young social entrepreneurs, additional support is needed to survive the crisis, to multiply their impact, and to lead the way in forging an inclusive and sustainable recovery.

Finally, the more sustainable use of a country’s natural endowments — of land, energy and water — is an essential part of the equation. Moving towards a more sustainable growth path, that is low carbon and climate resilient, will enable Zimbabwe to harness its vibrant and resourceful youth through engaging them in innovation and ICT to conserving its natural resource base while meeting the demands of people, so it remains a rich heritage for future generations.

Let us close on noting the aspirations of young people in Zimbabwe — today, with over 60% of the population of the country under the age of 35, investing in young people and empowering them to realise their potential, is what will drive durable peace, co-existence, inclusive society, resilient democracy, and long-term wealth creation in the country.

When young people enjoy good health, including sexual and reproductive health rights, higher quality education, decent working conditions, and are allowed to express their opinions and views freely, they are a powerful force for democratic, economic, and social development. Investing in young people is one of the smartest investments that any country can make.

A central premise of the work of the United Nations and Sweden’s history of supporting human rights and democracy before and since Zimbabwe’s independence are citizens’ right to participation, particularly that of young people who have a critical impact on its development prospects and on the living standards of the poor.

Investing in young people — and providing both boys and girls with equal opportunities and the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children — creates the conditions to break out of the poverty trap and increases levels of human development. In a nutshell, it is a panacea for an egalitarian and resilient democratic society. As we mark the International Day of Democracy, each one of us is an equal part of the efforts to advance freedom from want and freedom from fear.  Our small individual actions, joined together, can lead to a positive change for everyone and every community. Zimbabwe’s aspiration of becoming an equitable, prosperous upper middle-income society by 2030 is dependent on the decisions that the country now makes with its youth demographic dividend.

Åsa Pehrson is the Ambassador of Sweden

Maria Ribeiro is UN Resident Coordinator, in Zimbabwe

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