Commentary: The Power and Promise of Youth

Article Date

04 December 2012

Article Author

By Suzanne Petroni and Meredith Waters

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The recent United States presidential election confirmed the political power held by young people. Some 19 percent of the total votes on Nov. 6 were cast by young people between 18 and 29 years old – an even greater share of the electorate than in 2008. There should be no question that young people, through their engagement, advocacy and votes, are absolutely helping to determine the future of our country.

The rise of young people’s influence is not contained to the U.S. Youth are showing their influence around the globe. Half of the world’s population is under 30 years old, and these youth, more than 3 billion strong, comprise the most well-informed and well-connected generation the world has ever known.

We have the fortune of joining nearly 1,000 of these youth in Bali, Indonesia this week – not sightseeing, but formulating the international development agenda for the future.

As the world heads toward the 20th anniversaries of the major international development conferences of the 1990s and the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, the United Nations is bringing together young leaders and experts on youth from around the world to participate in the Bali Global Youth Forum, hosted by the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Beyond 2014.

Young people and their allies from 190 countries will discuss how they – and the rest of the international community – should address the many challenges and opportunities they face. And as the U.S. Agency for International Development recently acknowledged in its first ever youth policy, how young people act on these challenges and opportunities will ultimately affect the fate of us all.

In Bali, we will chart a path forward ensuring young people’s right to lead healthy lives and promote their overall well being. This includes better access to the information and services they need to prevent unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. We want to change the course for adolescents and youth, who currently comprise the majority of those newly infected with HIV/AIDS, and who face far too frequent too early and unwanted pregnancy.

It is incomprehensible to us that in many developing countries, girls are forced to marry shortly after – and sometimes even before – puberty, often to much older men. The UN estimates that nearly 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday in the coming decade. Young women – married or not – face increased risk of sexual violence, too early and unwanted pregnancy and maternal mortality. And young people everywhere face constraints and taboos related to their sexuality that often limits their ability to simply be themselves.

We will consider how best to provide opportunities for decent work and quality education to an ever-growing population of youth. According to the World Bank, 67 million children of primary school age and 72 million of lower secondary school age worldwide did not attend school in 2009. Without the education they need to survive and thrive in a modernizing world, young men and women will not be able to contribute fully to their societies.

Our mandate in Bali thus includes considering how societies can respect young people’s sexuality, and uphold their rights, and improve gender equity and equality, while supporting youth to act responsibly on their own behalf.

As they will in Bali, young people must continue to take leadership roles and become agents of change in driving the international public health and development agenda. Not only is this their right, but experience shows us that the most effective programs and policies targeting youth are designed, implemented and evaluated with meaningful youth engagement. Governments and civil society must therefore promote and provide capacity-building opportunities, including financial and technical support, to enable young people to participate fully in decisions that affect them and their peers.

Finally, we will work toward a future where young people participate actively and take ownership in their futures, which means authentic, honest and meaningful youth-adult partnerships. Not tokenism. In fact, the vast majority of delegates at the Global Youth Forum are in that critical age range of 18 to 29 years old, when vital decisions about personal and community life are made.

Those of us attending the Global Youth Forum all hold a common belief – that empowering young people with accurate information, education and services will lead to healthy and productive decision-making for themselves and their communities. Just as important, however is our knowledge that communities, too, must support changes in social norms that will allow them to do so.

Young people around the world, including the ones who will join us in Bali this week, are the ones who can lead us and our planet toward a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable present and future. Join us in enabling them to do so.

Suzanne Petroni directs ICRW’s gender, population and development program. She serves on the board of directors of Advocates for Youth and sits on the International Steering Committee for the ICPD Global Youth Forum

Meredith Waters is a senior at the George Washington University majoring in public health and was selected by the United Nations as a Respondent for the Global Youth Fourm in Bali. She is also a member of the International Youth Leadership Council at Advocates for Youth.

This commentary also appears in Global Post.