For a long time, I have wondered what characteristics of the women’s movement makes it unique and its agenda resonate more widely than that of the youth. I’m not suggesting that the youth movement does not have wide appeal, but unlike the women’s movement, global recognition of youth is usually premised on risk and vulnerability. This framework perceives youth as either being in trouble or as trouble makers themselves. One example that comes to mind is the well-known youth bulge theory which tends to suggest that youth will be trouble for their countries if something is not done about their situation. In contrast, women’s issues tend to be more widely seen from human rights, equality and social justice perspectives.
To illustrate my point, I take affirmative action and mainstreaming as key frameworks. In the early years, the women’s movement advocated equal opportunity and participation, and this eventually culminated into a demand for 30% quota in governance structures across the board at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995. This resonated around the world and has been a rallying call for women’s activists and communities as well as the political rhetoric when the discussion of equal representation and participation arises. From affirmative action, a further call was made to mainstream women’s issues into all development programming. Again, this resonated around the world and, in some cases, is a key building principle for development programming – known as gender mainstreaming. While the same concepts have been applied to youth, for example the African youth charter calls for quotas for youth participation in parliaments and the Commonwealth has been promoting the idea of youth mainstreaming for more than a decade, these ideas have not gained sufficient traction and are mainly dominant in forums organised by their key proponents.
I explore the question “what can the youth movement learn from women?” by drawing on four key lessons learnt from my attendance at the Association of Women in International Development (AWID) Conference in Brazil in September 2016. Firstly, unlike the youth movement, the women’s movement is grounded in an underlying conceptual framework – the human rights based framework – and a seemingly common narrative across the board, which serves as the overarching vehicle for all its other work. Secondly, the women’s movement is also driven by an agenda that resonates widely – to achieve equality between men and women (for example a call for equal pay for similar work by men and women). The value of this overarching agenda is that it provides a benchmark against which to measure progress. Thirdly, women’s movements work intersectionally, addressing multiple inequalities and challenges that women face universally and across different countries and localities. This may be in relation to their health, education, rights as indigenous women or their challenges as sexual minority. Fourthly, there is a constant comparison group – men, against which they can measure the progress of their effort, regardless where they are. The youth movement does not appear to to have overarching frameworks, agenda, intersectionality in approach and comparator group – particularly as adulthood as a comparator group is fluid and legal definitions of youthhood also intersects with how youth is defined.
Youth development is approached from a wide-range of different perspectives and often by voices other than theirs. Youth issues are seen from the perspective of need, assistance, vulnerability, opportunity, rights and voice, among several others. While each of these are individually important, there is not a single underlying narrative across all youth related work – which makes their issues a harder sell. While the rights based approach gained traction on some issues – for example on the rights of sexual minorities and right to education – it hasn’t been big on issues such as the right to decent employment, and in most cases these have focused on economic empowerment or the prevention of conflict that could result from having many idle young men and women.
Drawing on the above, I contend that the youth movement needs a single unifying and underlying argument or message to advance its agenda. The rights based agenda could be a suitable candidate for this. Far too often, youth programming is premised on the fear of the youth, not on their rights as citizens, and not on investments that are made because the youth deserve such investments. A rights based agenda could serve as the underlying narrative for much of youth related work. For example, on employment, do youth deserve a decent job for which they are adequately remunerated and not exploited? On education, do youth deserve the right to good quality education? On health, do youth have the right to health services that meet their needs and that do not discriminate them on the basis of their age? On agriculture, do youth deserve access to land for the purposes of farming? On political participation, do they deserve the opportunity to be appointed to senior public offices?
In addition to an underlying framework that cuts across all its work, the youth movement also needs to build intra-alliances. As a starting point, youth need to build global, regional and national alliances. Although there are several networks of youth at these levels, their messages are often not complementary, and they largely work in a fragmented way. There are several youth representative bodies on all three fronts of global, regional and national. Could there be a unifying platform that enables them to speak with a singular voice? Could there be a forum equivalent to the UN Women’s conference that will enable young people to speak with one voice from a global process that provides a unifying agenda? Rather than work in silos, youth need to work intersectionally, recognising that the challenges youth face are not only related to single areas such as reproductive health or education or employment, but are wide ranging. Therefore, by working together to address their challenges they are more likely to find a central message and a range of approaches around that central message that resonate with their individual outcomes. For example, what is the central message that links the challenges of young gay men to those of juvenile offenders or youth in communities that lack access to health care services tailored to their needs? A global unifying platform could be instrumental to creating a global unifying agenda, and could be valuable to advancing the formation of a truly global youth movement.
Finally, youth need to form cross-movement alliances. For example, youth representative bodies could link up with those of women in order to leverage the gains women have made over the last two decades since Beijing, and to enable them draw on the rallying messaging of the women’s rights movement. Along these lines, youth, particularly female youth, need to call for generational shifts in movement leadership within the women’s movement. This will afford them the opportunity to forge intergenerational alliances and align the women and youth agendas in ways that maintain their distinctions and enable them leverage the resources, networks and opportunities that the women’s movement offers.