Before they grow old, can we let the young people in?

By Emilie Peeters

Emilie Peeters is the Alliance’s EU Policy Advisor based in Brussels. Here she reflects on the UN General Assembly and young people’s participation in policy discussions.

Youth empowerment, participation, leadership… these were the new buzz words during the United Nations General Assembly discussions on the post-2015 framework in New York last month. “Finally!” you would think, “the young generation is the future and it will be them leading the world in 2030”.

There is just one problem: when discussing all this, young people are very often nowhere to be seen. When will we finally recognise that young people have rights and are able to take on responsibilities themselves? When will we finally fully respect young people as the next generation, one that deserves to be part of discussing their future?

© Sheikh Rajibul Islam\duckrabbit\International HIV/AIDS Alliance It started somewhat before the UN General Assembly. Link Up is a project which is improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of more than one million young people in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda. It’s a project where we try to bring young people’s voices, especially those of the most vulnerable groups in society, to global policy forums.

We are convinced that young people are best placed to talk about the barriers they face in accessing healthcare themselves, and that they deserve to be seen as an equal voice around the table. That’s why we organised a panel discussion in New York that included only young speakers. A good intention and at first glance quite easy as you have lots of very talented young people who are often more engaging to listen to than their older colleagues. They still have the passion, the fire, the excitement. It comes from the heart and from the belief that we can still make this world a better place.

In practice however it wasn’t that easy. All three of our initial speakers had their visa application rejected and none of them were given a full explanation as to why. It probably had to do with the fact that they had to provide proof of salary, not always easy when you’re twenty-something. Or maybe it was the fact that people who have ever engaged in sex work are not allowed to enter the US, which makes it very difficult to give these vulnerable populations a voice in the debate. Or maybe it was the fact that young people coming from the global south are interviewed only in English, and not accepted when their level of language is low even if they are travelling with a mentor who can translate for them. Imagine if China would only allow visas for Europeans and Americans who speak Chinese…

We don’t know what the reason was but just goes to show that these young people were not treated with the respect they deserve, seen as possible trouble makers rather than experts on an issue that they were invited to share their knowledge on in the UN discussions.

Discussions in a packed room about adolescents’ health with only one adolescent participating is not how we see meaningful youth engagement. How come young people between 15 and 25 count for one fifth of the world’s population but are rarely formally represented in political negotiations? Recent global revolutions such as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement have shown the impact that youth voices can have by bringing new leadership and fresh ideas. These youth-led actions are proof that young people are not apathetic and uninterested in politics but are very political and often more active than the majority of adults. So let’s get the young people in, before they grow old…