Giving youth a voice

“Children are the future” and “our youth are the future” are constant refrains from many a public figure.

The power of the youth is driven home through every form of media. Looking at current youth populations globally, we are seeing the largest youth population in recorded human history. Sri Lanka’s youth population is over four million people (this is based on the definition of youths as young adults from the ages of 15-29, as defined by Sri Lanka’s 2014 National Youth Policy).  

A group shot from the #WEGovernSL project, a youth empowerment initiative led by Hashtag Generation

But how empowered are our youth really? Can they affect change and how effectively can they do this? How can youths take initiative to make an impact on a national level and how receptive are older age groups to the voices and needs of youths?

Against the backdrop of the 2020 general election, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to several empowerment advocates for their views on youth empowerment and youth policies in Sri Lanka. 


The importance of youth empowerment

Activist Vraie Cally Balthazaar

Youth empowerment is important because young people are a significant part of our population and today’s youth will be the leaders and decision-makers of the future. Empowering youths and giving them platforms to be heard and drive change results in them inheriting a world with systems and structures they have had a hand in shaping. 

Activist Vraie Cally Balthazaar commented on the importance of youth empowerment, sharing: “Youth empowerment is important because youths should be able to build the futures that they want and excluding them from these conversations creates a gap between what they need and what they get.”

Speaking specifically on the empowerment of young women in relation to youth empowerment as a whole, activist and feminist storytelling collective Everystory Sri Lanka Co-founder Sharanya Sekaram commented that youth empowerment is important on two levels – one being empowering young girls to stand up and be leaders, and the other being making a generation that is comfortable seeing women as leaders; not as women leaders, but simply leaders. Effective youth empowerment would get youths involved in progressive thoughts and processes that enable them to contribute to a global landscape. 

“The younger you start, the more normal it becomes. Those who are comfortable with women in leadership have been exposed to such things at a young age,” Sekaram commented.

HYPE Sri Lanka Founder Chiranthi Senanayake

Youth empowerment advocate, Diana Award winner, and HYPE Sri Lanka Founder Chiranthi Senanayake commented that youth empowerment is particularly important because of the “unique role in time that young people serve”, adding: “The world, as a result of the United Nations Sustainable Development Framework (UNSDF) as well as the Youth, Peace, and Security mandate, is recognising that youths are agents of change linking together the present and the future. With this in mind, youths are currently being actively groomed as leaders to take over the future world. Not empowering youths, particularly in this context, leaves the future of the planet uncertain because young people will inherit a world they didn’t play a part in developing.” 


How does Sri Lanka foster and empower youths?

On how Sri Lanka currently empowers its youths, Senanayake explained that the current national framework houses youth affairs under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which manages the National Youth Services Council, which has a federation of youth clubs in every divisional secretariat and grama niladhari office.

This is an expansive framework that is state-funded, and is a very commendable move on the part of the Government. However, despite this expansive framework, how it is utilised to efficiently meet its goals and its level of efficiency too are sometimes questionable because of several existing factors and realities. 

One factor that inhibits youth empowerment is the use of the framework to make the youth a political tool, Senanayake shared. For example, at the National Youth Services Council, there is a separate office dedicated to the political party in power, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because youth affairs shouldn’t be related to any political party. 

Hashtag Generation, a movement led and run by a group of young tech-savvy, socially conscious Sri Lankans advocating for the meaningful civic and political participation of youths, Co-founder and Director Senel Wanniarachchi explained that Sri Lanka’s youth empowerment initiatives have gaps for two main reasons: awareness and access. Youths are not aware of these systems, clubs, and initiatives, and even for those who are, access can be difficult because these systems tend to cater to those who know more and/or are privileged. 

Another flaw in youth empowerment systems, Sekaram pointed out, is that they are always subject to and curtailed by older age group organisations or committees that often impact the level of engagement these systems can hope to gain. For example, Interact clubs are beholden to Rotaract clubs which can then limit the agency of the Interact club. “In short, there is no real place nationally for youths to do what they want on their terms, and where people put power into youths’ hands.” 


How can youth empowerment be improved on a national level?  

Senanayake shared that youth empowerment can be made more effective on a broader scale through a clear national youth policy. Sri Lanka’s last National Youth Policy was in 2014. A national youth policy is a guide to how the Government, and the country, approach its youth and youth affairs. 

A multifaceted approach to youth empowerment is also key, Senanayake explained, stating that the current approach to youth empowerment is fairly one-dimensional and doesn’t take into account the complexities of the current youth generation and their needs beyond education and employment, like the need to pursue happiness or be involved in decision-making. Even needs like access to the internet, which is very important to the youth, are not duly considered. 

Hashtag Generation Co-founder and Director Senel Wanniarachchi

Wanniarachchi agreed on the need for a multifaceted approach, commenting: “At the highest levels of government, you find much older people, where most are over the age of 65. While older people also absolutely do need to be represented, there are disproportionately a lot of older people and very few younger people and these older people make decisions on how structures operate, and there is sometimes a big disconnect because they don’t understand the everyday realities of young people on the ground.” 

To empower youths nationally, Wanniarachchi shared, it is important that young people aren’t simply acting out the decisions of older people. “Younger representation in the highest levels of government and the removal of the structural barriers that keep young people out of government unless they’re privileged or come from families with political histories, are also very important.”

Education is also a key field that needs attention to foster and empower youths. Balthazaar commented: “The education system is very rigid; empowerment always tends to come back to education, to teaching civic rights, not for the sake of inclusion in curricula but for understanding.

“The structural problems of poverty also need to be addressed for true empowerment. Acknowledging the specific problems of the youth and giving them autonomy and independence is also very important. There is no one element that can be fixed with the expectation that everything will change.”

Activist and Everystory Sri Lanka Co-founder Sharanya Sekaram

Sekaram commented that for empowerment to be effective on a national level, the onus can’t be only on the State; the private sector needs to step up as well. “The private sector is very good at evading the issues and blaming the public sector, but they also need to look at their own boards and leadership teams and at how they measure success themselves, whether it is solely on merit or by the number of years someone has put in. The private sector tends to pick out a handful of youth stars, who they highlight, when in fact vast sections of their workforces are youth-driven.”


Looking to the future

With the new change in government, the stage is set for a new era of connecting with and empowering Sri Lanka’s youths. Defining a new national youth policy, for example, would go a long way towards creating more cohesive empowerment systems. 

But how else can the new Government look to working with the nation’s youths? One way would be by including youth voices in the making of such policies. 

Balthazaar commented that youth inclusion shouldn’t be limited to one type of youth. “The youth is not homogenous; they include women, minorities, people with disabilities, and all aspects and voices need to be taken into account to counter various issues. Then, it comes back to really focusing on laying out a policy and sticking to it and making sure it is implemented and not swept under the carpet and treated as a secondary issue.”

Wanniarachchi agreed on the need for diversity of representation, sharing: “The important thing is listening to what young people have to say, and not just to one type of young person. It’s very easy to say ‘youth’ and pretend young people are all equal. But if you just say you’re engaging the youth and only call one specific group, then it’s not representative. More transparency on government decision-making and processes and being able to challenge and reconsider the old ways of doing things, are also important.”

Taking the good with the bad is also key to working and engaging the youth, Sekaram shared, commenting: “When consulting with young people, you need to listen to what they’re saying even if you don’t like it. You also need to accept that there will be mistakes; one young person making a mistake doesn’t reflect on all young people. We can afford to be a bit lenient and understand that people are figuring things out.” 

Sekaram explained that true empowerment is not simply being consulted, which many people tend to do in a way that tokenises the youth. “I want to laugh when I go for corporate events where panels talk about handling Millennials in the workplace but everyone on the panel is 55-plus. Maybe 50% of the people driving change should actually be young people?”

Simplifying processes and connecting with stakeholders is also something the new Government should consider. Senanayake explained: “The best way to be involved is to be connected with other stakeholders working in the field. A survey conducted by HYPE Sri Lanka showed that 65% of youth organisations are not registered with the Government because the process is complicated and autocratic, to the point of being inefficient and counterproductive. Processes need to be made simpler.”