Celebrating International Youth Day amidst COVID-19 — The Resilience of Young People
This year’s International Youth Day is historic. For the first time, it will be commemorated largely virtually as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to stricter physical distancing. It is also the first one this century where the world collectively is at a crossroads for the future and where the world collectively has to take a step forward. Whilst International Youth Day is often used as a stepping stone to reaffirm commitments towards engaging young people, it would be remiss not to use this opportunity to understand and reimagine what a post pandemic youth engagement can and should look like.
COVID-19 is a time to reimagine what post pandemic youth engagement can look like
COVID-19 has now impacted almost every country in the world, heavily affecting communities at all levels of society. While all are impacted, millions of young people worldwide have been, and continue to be, disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the associated crisis. The pandemic and public health restrictions are having severe effects on their mental health, career prospects and personal development with many young people facing increased levels of interpersonal violence.
Almost 1.2 billion learners (69% of all those enrolled worldwide) are currently out-of-school as a result of the country-wide and localized closures of educational institutions forced by the Covid-19. This adds up to the hundreds of millions of young people that were already out-of-school prior to the pandemic (and who therefore even more risk being left out). Such educational disruptions, even temporary, have serious repercussions on the lives and well-being of young people (and their families), especially for those who:
• have fewer opportunities for growth and development outside of the formal educational setting
• rely on free or discounted meals provided at schools for food and healthy nutrition
• have parents with limited education and resources who may particularly struggle to facilitate or support distance learning and home schooling (when put in place)
• lack access to technology or good internet connectivity which may prevent or limit educational continuity through digital learning portals during times of compulsory confinement
• are left alone at home by working parents who have no other choice for them to be looked after, which can lead to additional anxiety, psychological distress or mental health issues, risks of exposure to violence (e.g., (online) sexual exploitation and abuse, cyberbullying) and negative coping mechanisms (e.g., substance misuse/abuse, self-harm, depression, suicide)
We know (partly from the evidence and lessons learnt out of Ebola outbreaks) that prolonged closures of educational institutions often:
• increase drop-out rates, in particular among adolescent girls (who generally take on a heavier part of the burden of household chores, support with child care, etc., may be exploited, married or pregnant)
• further entrench gender gaps in education (in particular when harsh socio-economic conditions make families favour the education of boys over girls — despite research showing higher socio-economic return for the family out of girls’ education compared to that of boys on the long run)
• lead to increased protection risks (e.g., trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse, early pregnancy, early and forced marriage, child labour, recruitment by armed groups)
• pose a serious threat in terms of malnutrition and health more broadly speaking (especially for families relying on school feeding programmes or health care services offered at schools).
So, if this year we are not mindful of what young people globally are going through currently, then we lose the essence of what the day should be about and what we can do about it
The pandemic has once again reminded us that local communities are the backbone of society.
All over the world COVID-19 has challenged people in local communities to think and act differently. We have been reminded of the existing deep inequalities in our societies, with respect to access to resources, information, digital connectivity, and power dynamics around marginalisation, including institutional racism. The pandemic has caused most activities to shift online blurring the lines between personal and professional whilst increasing the need for online safety and security.
Consequently, we have noticed an inspiring and moving engagement of young people in volunteering activities, self-organising, supporting their communities during these hours of need often in the absence of state. As COVID-19 has shown, young people have — and will continue to have — a valuable role in the global response to and recovery from the COVID19 pandemic.
As COVID-19 has shown, young people have — and will continue to have — a valuable role in the global response to and recovery from the COVID19 pandemic.
Young people are agents for peace, engaged in transforming the structures and institutions that hinder the socio- economic and political well-being of people. They are often first responders and disproportionately affected by disasters taking a long time to build back better. Through volunteering and engagement, young people lift the spirits of communities and light the world with their actions. As volunteers, young people are bearers of hope and compassion, willing to make their contribution to society and effecting change through moral influence.
So this International Youth Day our reflections are not only on celebrating the contributions of young people but on understanding from the experience of COVID-19 how we can mobilise young people to act quickly and together to address these key issues. There has to be a collective commitment to collaborate, innovate, and to support local communities to provide hope to many young people. Now more than ever young people need to be included and embedded in processes taking place now, not as token representation but with agency and influence.
A lot must be done to ensure that we get the full engagement and investment. This is not only the responsibility of the youth to push for this as they inherit the problems that we create but also our collective responsibility to ensure that we do not hand something that we would not want to inherit.
So, we need to do more to invest and engage with them, but this requires a holistic approach. We need to remove the prejudice that many of us have when it comes to engaging young people. We must stop thinking that they are apolitical — more interested in following the latest instalment of a reality TV programme than in engaging with the serious questions of the world around them. We should channel their enthusiasm to express and get involved. However, we must be honest about this approach. We need to give them the space to be innovative and shape or rethink new models for the communities and societies in which they live — maybe outside the globalised economic and “social” system that they will inherit from their elders and previous generations. In doing this, we must answer some hard questions about whether we are ready for that and what it will take for each one of us to work together towards a fairer world for all of us. In short, we have to be prepared for a hard shift in how we work and engage.
we have to be prepared for a hard shift in how we work and engage.
Uncertainty and fear for the future is the ‘new normal’ for many young people. It is not enough for youth to be ‘represented’ but they must be mainstreamed, included, nurtured, listened to, consulted, and worked with in partnership with.
This is the call that is most loud and one we need to support. These are the lessons from COVID-19, and this is the call for International Youth Day 2020.