Never before have so many young people been involved in movements for change worldwide. We are taking to the streets and using online social networks and communities to connect, express our voices, and campaign for change. We are protesting against authoritarian regimes, corruption, and inequalities. We are fighting for sustainable development and a better future for current and new generations.
However, the political representation of young women and men remains limited. We are increasingly demanding more meaningful participation in decision-making processes, so we can have more control over how our lives and futures are shaped. Although we, the youth are involved in activism in the digital space, protesting, volunteering to improve our communities, and innovating for social good, our participation and influence on formal politics are limited. Voter turnout is in decline in all democracies and is concentrated among us. We, the youth, are underrepresented in political decision-making positions and our involvement in political parties is dwindling.
The concept of participation entails the notion that all citizens should be involved in decision-making processes that affect them. This includes direct and indirect ways for people of all ages to exercise influence as individuals, as members of networks and associations, and through various political institutions. By extension, “youth participation” can be understood as the active involvement of young people in decision-making processes and institutions that affect their environment and their lives within it.
Importance Of Youth Involvement
For political systems to be representative, all parts of society must be included. When young people are disenfranchised or disengaged from political processes, a significant portion of the population has little or no voice or influence in decisions that affect group members’ lives. A key consequence is the undermining of political systems’ representativeness.
To make a difference in the longer term, we, the youth must be engaged in formal political processes and have a say in formulating today’s and tomorrow’s politics. Inclusive political participation is not only a fundamental political and democratic right but also is crucial to building stable and peaceful societies and developing policies that respond to the specific needs of younger generations. For us to be adequately represented in political institutions, processes, and decision-making, and in particular in elections, we must know our rights and be given the necessary knowledge and capacity to participate in a meaningful way at all levels.
When there are obstacles to participating in formal, institutionalized political processes, we, the youth, can rapidly feel disempowered. Many of us tend to believe that our voices are not going to be heard or that we will not be taken seriously even if we are heard. The problem becomes circular as politicians may lose interest in responding to our aspirations if they cannot win our votes. This in turn leads to us being increasingly excluded from taking part in decision-making, or in debates about key socio-economic and political issues, despite our sensitivity to the demands for social equity and justice, environmental protection, and cultural diversity.
As the youth, we must maximize our capabilities by participating in programs that will impact our communities. We must take it upon ourselves to become engaged citizens through constant awareness and group collaboration.
In new and emerging democracies, our inclusion in formal political processes is essential from the start. Our active contributions can bring democratic values to life, leading to the overturning of authoritarian practices. In countries where we have led protests that have forced authoritarian regimes from power, we are likely to feel significant frustration if we are not included in new formal decision-making procedures. This can destabilize democratization and accelerate conflict dynamics.
Distorting assumptions about the youth and how we participate in political processes are common and are often triggered by a lack of understanding and/or prejudice. These persistent assumptions inaccurately characterize the everyday experiences of most youth – who do not constitute a homogenous group – and can lead to discrimination of young people, negatively affecting our capacity to participate in political processes.
While some aspects of these negative assumptions about youth participation are grounded in reality, on the whole, they are misleading. Assumptions about young people that distort the actual picture include the following:
- we are apathetic about and disengaged from politics – so, for example, we don’t bother voting
- we are “anti-state,” with a propensity for violence and extremism.
Voter turnout indeed tends to be significantly lower among youth than among the older population, but interpreting this as evidence of apathy ignores the structural and organizational obstacles to electoral participation many of us face. It also neglects to account for the distrust many of us feel towards traditional institutions of governance. A feeling of disconnect from a process that is not viewed as an effective tool for meaningful political engagement is not apathy.
We can also be powerful challengers of the status quo; this is a time-honored dimension of our change agency. There are, however, young men, and increasingly young women, involved in violence and extremist groups and this has given rise to a picture of youth generally as a threat to global security and stability. However, the majority of young men and women who mount challenges to the status quo do so through peaceful protest, social critique, cultural expression, and online mobilization and organization.
In the case of our engagement in violence, the key drivers are discrimination and corruption. This is all the more reason to work towards our inclusion in formal decision-making processes, so that we may grapple in a non-violent manner with the injustices and deprivation we, the youth, experience.
Feature Image: MICHELLE THOMPSON