Empowerment and inclusion of young people in the quest for sustainable development in Asia Pacific

March 25, 2019 IMG_4684

The youth movement on sustainable development in Asia is ready!

As young people from 15 countries gather for the third APFSD 2019 Youth Forum, I present some reflections on the way forward.

The Asia Pacific region hosts sixty percent of young people (1.8 billion) between the ages of 10-24 years. Estimates in the region point to widening income inequality, and this undermines economic and social achievements for all, including young people.  Countries like China are the richest, earning 10.1 times as much as the poorest. This income inequality is also high in countries with high levels of poverty. For instance, Lao PDR shows the richest earning almost 5.9 times that of the poorest. These inequalities have direct bearing on young people as they constitute at least 30% of the population in these countries.

Access to social services such as education and health is not universally enjoyed by all, particularly marginalised young people. Circumstantial inequalities such as unequal access to opportunities and services, including employment, education, health, water, sanitation and energy services, affect young people living in urban slums, rural areas, hard to reach places, persons with disabilities, migrants and stateless people, persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identities, and ethnic minorities. Such marginalisation and inequalities further manifests through the lack of participation in decision-making and access to information, leading to the denial and violation of human rights. Many adolescents and young people continue to be affected by harmful traditional practices including child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation as well as other localised practices, which further impedes potential and opportunities.

Education indicators in the region show that although primary education enrolment and attainment are higher than previous times, including for girls, secondary and tertiary education continue to be unattainable for many girls. When they are able to gain this access, the skills they develop are not matched with skill needs in the job market, presenting further barriers to improving wellbeing and moving out of poverty.

Governments have the primary obligation to ensure the right to education and remove barriers that hinder equity, inclusion and quality at all levels of education. It should address the needs of the disadvantaged and enable equitable access to quality learning opportunities for children and young people. This calls for increased government expenditure in the education sector.  Allocating at least 4-6 percent of Gross Domestic Product and/or at least 15-20 percent of total public expenditure to education can get us on the path to universal access to education.

In terms of employment indicators, only 20 percent of the region’s workers are young people. Without sufficient numbers of new, decent employment opportunities for young people, the social and economic growth potential of the region will be compromised. The youth employment challenge is complex in settings of child labour, forced labour, poverty and vulnerability. Education, training, skills development, social protection, self-employment and entrepreneurship, language and technology need to be catered for as the possibilities for decent work and employment are explored.

This region is among the hardest hit in regards to the effects of climate change. Low lying and crowded coastal cities in many South and Southeast Asian countries are most at risk, and the hundreds of millions of people who live there are particularly vulnerable. Building resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change remain key and young people are key stakeholders in this process.

The theme of APFSD 2019 this year – “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”- is a key driving force for leaving no one behind and achieving the sustainable development agenda. Empowerment for young people would mean tackling the underlying power relations in society. Building on the definition of empowerment by Williams et al, these power relations are expressed in the forms of “power to” make decisions and solve problems ;  “power with”,  organising and taking collective action with a common purpose , and “power within”, through self-confidence , self-awareness, dignity and the understanding of how power operates in their lives.

Attaining such empowerment can lead to opportunities for change and it can influence development outcomes and the underlying inequalities for young people.  However, greater control over their own lives calls for addressing systemic and structural issues. Calling for empowerment of young people would mean to invigorate the “power within” young people and build resilience so they can make decisions around their own lives and gain power to build a strong youth movement for sustainable development and realisation of human rights.

Inclusion is a concept akin to empowerment that captures the spirit of the central aspiration of the 2030 Agenda, to “leave no one behind”. The 2030 Agenda calls for social, political and economic inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, economic or any other status. Inclusion processes would call for removal of inequities in access to assets, capabilities and opportunities and enhance participation of young people. Greater inclusion of young people in all their diversity can lead to empowerment as well as create more equal societies. This would mean including and working with young people who are socially excluded in our respective countries. The rights to non-discrimination and equality lie at the core of almost every international human rights treaty and are guaranteed protections in the exercise of all other rights.

In conclusion, empowerment, inclusion and mobilisation are key at the individual and collective level and through this process, a youth movement on sustainable development can be built in the region to realise the sustainable agenda for young people.  Over the last three years, through the engagements at the APFSD Youth Forums, a critical mass of young people are ready, empowered, and informed to engage with the sustainable development agenda in the region.

“Together we envision a world where young people have the rights, capacity and opportunity to live lives free from any discrimination and enjoy their full and equal human rights.”  


Sai Jyothirmai Racherla

Programme Director, ARROW