By Arup Barua
Young people enjoy a critical juncture of human lives, where the transition from childhood to adulthood takes place. This phase goes beyond physical transformation, rather a set of transformation, which entails biological, psychological, socio-cultural and political adaptation. Age is the only parameter to define youth, but there is no universal definition of youth. The definition of youth varies from individual country’s national law to international conventions. The United Nations defines youth as the age group between 15 and 24 years, but the Commonwealth defines it in the range from 15 to 29 years of age. The Government of Bangladesh marks youth as the age bracket from 18 to 35 years. Notwithstanding the discrepancies in different definitions of youth, this particular group delivers the next wave of the community – national and even global leaders.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), current youth population of the country is about 52 million, and more than 33 percent of the total population. Consequently, an integrated development of this particular cohort is a grave concern and it is to be addressed prudently in the policy document. While a window of opportunity is flapping the country, strategic and visionary policy development, and implementation would be instrumental to reap the demographic dividend to lead Bangladesh towards a developed nation.
With such backdrop, Bangladesh formulated its first national youth policy in 2003. With the passage of time that policy had not been well responsive to the current youth needs and priorities. A revision of youth policy was quite expected to meet the needs of present times. A draft of the National Youth Policy was published by the Department of Youth Development (DYD) under the Ministry of Youth and Sports for public opinion in April 2015. The first draft of the policy was developed by Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), which was fully funded by the Commonwealth Foundation. Later in 2015, DYD organized several divisional and central level consultations with different key stakeholders of the country. Following a series of consultations and an online call for feedback by DYD, a large number of recommendations/ feedback had been shared by different organizations with DYD. At the end of 2015, government’s thinktank Center for Research and Information (CRI) joined hands with DYD through a blurred process that depleted executive/legislative authority. In the latest phase, CRI published a revised draft after incorporating some feedback from different forums including two ministries. A national level workshop titled – finalization of national youth policy has been jointly organized in July 2016 by DYD, CRI and UNFPA Bangladesh.
The draft National Youth Policy 2015 was developed in a big document of 19 pages, which covered almost all-encompassing issues. The policy is illustrated in 17 clauses and it entails vision, mission, values, objectives, definition, prioritized themes etc. Due to broad activity type language, the draft policy is deemed lax. Many of the activity level terms would yield complications in developing the plan of action. In ideal situation, a policy should be an indicative document which can be translated in detail while formulating strategy or action plan to be aligned with the policy. The inclusion of different stakeholders’ feedback has significantly improved the revised draft policy in 2016. The major recommendations have been taken into account, which were shared by Ministry of Education, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Theme Group on Adolescents and Youth.
The policy offers a preamble which delineates the background independence of Bangladesh and glorious sacrifice of youth during independence war and in other democratic movements. It attempts to establish the nexus between the national development and youth empowerment by referring several articles of the Constitution. Some other substantial issues including demographic dividend, vision 2021, 2041 and sustainable development goals are broadly extended. As this policy will have a series of policy implications in future, therefore it is much useful to deconstruct the policy with critical understanding before it gets finalized. At the onset, it should be admitted that key issues, challenges of youth are well articulated in general, despite diversity across the country.
It is noteworthy that comparing the first draft with the revised draft, the gender sensitiveness has been reflected significantly. While the first draft ratifies the needs of transgender youth, contrary most of other parts suggested gender equality between men and women. The revised draft promotes gender equality and empowerment of all human beings irrespectively their sex, race, class, caste etc. From human rights approach, the revised draft is much more inclusive than the previous draft. The promotion of youth engagement in environmental education and protection, ICT development, green technology, good governance, sustainable development, volunteerism, youth work has been widely adapted. Furthermore, the draft policy recognizes the rights of youth, which requires a multisectoral coordination mechanism to ensure rights of youth. Needs of a diverse youth group, are not identical across the country, especially disadvantaged, marginalized, vulnerable youth are in need of different interventions. This policy has laudably identified a number of disadvantaged, marginalized youth.
Although the policy defines youth aged between 18 years to 35 years. But policy interventions are not reaching equitably to the entire group. It would be an inhumane decision by the state when someone at 31 years of age is called a youth but cannot apply for a government job, while youth employment rate is much higher than the national unemployment rate. According to the latest Labor Force Survey (LFS), youth (15-29) unemployment rate is 8.1 percent whereas national unemployment rate is 4.3 percent. Youth must be given that right to apply for a government job up to that age without any discrimination, which is the upper limit of youth definition, adopted in the policy.
The well-being of educated youth is to some extent missing in the policy. While LFS shows that employed persons aged 15-29 with a university degree have the highest rate of youth unemployment, at 16.4 percent. Even female unemployment rate of this group is much higher, which is 23.5 percent. In order to encourage youth entrepreneurship, the policy should advocate for a reform in the existing policies to ensure the hassle-free access of youth entrepreneurs to financial institutions and services rather than establishing a ‘youth bank’. Considering the bulk of youth population and their needs at home, there are very limited opportunities for youth skills development in fostering professional growth. Perhaps, the quality of education and personal development are myriad challenges, which should be addressed effectively to captivate global job market. Simultaneously, sexual and reproductive health education and services, healthy lifestyle education should be ensured for all youth.
Under the prioritized areas, ‘empowerment’ has been sectioned in education, training, employment, self-entrepreneurship and ICT. The political empowerment of youth and their participation in decision-making are somehow ignored. It is inevitably the political empowerment of youth which could be a multiplier factor in ensuring good governance and building a just society. Till now, the policy is confined to the civic participation of youth within good governance. Whether secondary level students elect their representative through an institutionalized mechanism in Bangladesh, the tertiary level educational institutes present a dysfunctional students’ council.
The draft policy has incorporated a contested issue like genetically modified crops, which should be proscribed from the policy. Ministry of Foreign Affairs has proposed to incorporate International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which is not applicable for youth in general. As IHL, also known as Laws of Armed Conflict, promoted by International Committee of the Red Cross, is much more devised for military personnel to follow certain norms during an international armed conflict. Rather attention should be given to train youth on the promotion of universal human rights, existing national laws of the country, prevention of cyber crimes, international crimes.
The policy promotes youth exchange among different countries but this exchange should not be limited to international exchange. An exchange between rural and urban youth would be encouraged to promote national solidarity, brotherhood, cultural integration.
To conclude, youth population as a target group should be entitled to get special attention and priority from different ministries, ministry of youth and sports cannot alone assure an integrated youth development. Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Finance will have to play a lead role in introducing a reform for comprehensive youth development. In addition, proactive engagement of and effective partnership with private sector, youth community, civil society organizations, media are inevitable to sustain the process of youth development.
[Arup Barua is a young professional in Development Sector focusing Bangladesh and South Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]]