- Discussing youth engagement and youth economic empowerment
By Naveed Rozais
A distinguished panel of youth activists and thought leaders represented Sri Lanka at the first-ever South Asia Youth Festival, a virtual festival organised exclusively for the youth of South Asian countries to develop their skills and capabilities and also to construct a platform to learn and showcase their skills. The South Asia Youth Festival celebrities international youth, youth energy, creativity, and enthusiasm and features insightful panels, creative competitions, and skill-building workshops.
The South Asia Youth Festival kicked off on 12 August and will go on till 23 September. It is organised by the collaborative efforts of Glocal (Pvt.) Ltd, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), A2I Bangladesh, Cabinet Division Bangladesh, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) of Bangladesh, National Youth Council of Bangladesh, National Youth Council of Maldives, Coca-Cola – Nepal, South-South Network, Konnect, Turkish Airlines, CYDA India, Commonwealth Youth Network of Sri Lanka, Dynamic Youth Afghanistan, and Pinnacle Consultancy (Pvt.) Ltd. – Maldives.
The Sri Lankan “Youth Engagement and Youth Economic Empowerment” panel took place on 21 August and was moderated by Commonwealth Youth Network President Gayan Rajapaksha. The panel consisted of social entrepreneur and advocate Anoka Abeyrathne; youth activist and Impact Voices Co-Founder Darshatha Gamage; global activist, artist, motivational speaker, and Voices of Humans Director Kapila Rasnayaka, author and political activist Milinda Rajapaksha; and rights activist and Commonwealth Youth Network Secretary Shiromi Samarakoon.
The panel looked at youth in Sri Lanka as a whole, with Shiromi Samrakoon sharing that Sri Lanka’s youth population (aged 15-29) is over 4.5 million and that Sri Lanka’s youth population has had a history of insurrections with uprisings taking place in 1971 and the late 1980s, followed by a lengthy civil war.
Speaking on Sri Lanka’s most pressing youth issues, Samarakoon said that Sri Lanka’s youth face large issues with unemployment and underemployment, adding that in her view, the problem stemmed from Sri Lanka’s education system. She explaining that in the local education system, graduates complete the bachelor’s degree at the age of 25 or 26, at which point they begin looking for their first job.
The local education system, while providing a very solid academic education, doesn’t provide any other training to enhance employability or to prepare the graduate for the job market and corporate environments. In addition to starting out their lives professionally, youth also face pressure to settle down and being families. The issue of employment is also complicated by expectation of graduates to be guaranteed a government job on the completion of their state-funded studies.
A general lack of perception when it comes to women’s rights, gender equality, and LBGT+ rights as well as divides when it comes to race and religion are also major issues Sri Lankan youth face. In addition to the endemic youth issues faced by local youth, the Covid-19 pandemic seems set to also have a long-lasting impact on the economy, serving to potentially exacerbate issues like unemployment and underemployment.
Sri Lanka’s history of youth participation on a national level is promising, Milinda Rajapaksha shared, explaining that the political culture in Sri Lanka has changed greatly over the last few decades, shifting from a massive block vote where youth voted for whoever their parents voted for to a more inclusive and considered voting system that sees younger people without political family histories coming into the local government from the local council level up.
Addressing the most recent parliamentary election, Rajapaksha explained that 81 of the 225 Members of Parliament voted in are new members and over 70 of these members come from diverse professional backgrounds. “Of the new Parliament, a relatively large number of MPs are below the age of 40, which is very promising for youth empowerment. A lot of trust and significant responsibility has been given within the state.”
Speaking on the pandemic, Rajpaksha shared that the impact of the pandemic on Sri Lanka’s biggest industries like the labour export industry to the Middle East pose a significant threat to the youth. Rajapaksha also noted that despite the Government’s positive stance on encouraging entrepreneurship, other systems like the banking system prevent youth from availing of such opportunities.
Darshatha Gamage commented on youth participation in the decision-making process, explaining that due to Sri Lankan cultures and social attitudes, youth are not always treated as equals in decision-making processes and that a change in this outlook will go a long way to add value to empowering the youth to take part in policy and decision-making.
Gamage also stressed the importance of recognising that youth recognition needs to be diverse and that one or two youth being included and consulted on decision-making is not effective, because Sri Lanka’s youth is as diverse as Sri Lanka larger society, with a lot of different backgrounds and identities to consider. Moreover, it was also shared that collaboration between different groups of youth is essential to create more inclusive solutions.
Weighing in on how systems can challenge youths was Kapila Rasnayaka. He explained that caste, class, religion, ethnicity, and gender all play a part in creating systems that divide not just the youth, but the whole of society, and to overcome this, a holistic psychosocial approach is required to understand discrimination and build the ability to challenge stereotypes. Rasnayaka stressed that without a change in the mindset and attitudes, no real long-term change in behaviour is possible. “It’s about creating one humanity for everyone,” Rasnayaka added.
Rasnayaka also commented that youths need to depend more on their natural imaginations and engage with agriculture and technology intelligently to be able to develop. Social taboos like sex and pleasure need to be addressed, particularly with the youth.
Anoka Abeyrathne spoke on the power of social enterprise, stressing the importance of developing soft skills for youth and the need for cultivating a sense of mission and purpose among Sri Lanka’s youth.
“Social entrepreneurship as a game-changer is a brilliant tool that encompasses all issues. It is a great way forward for anyone who wants to work and make a mark in their arena. Looking at long-term sustainable goals as a country and as a community is also important,” Abeyrathne shared, explaining that a “big picture approach” is needed to create a more savvy Sri Lanka where youths don’t have to beg for jobs. “It’s about looking at where you want to be in 2025 or 2030 and making it happen.”
The panel closed with a discussion on how young people as a whole need to take the initiative to identify the issues they face and work together to find and advocate solutions and also build opportunities and spaces for empowerment, not just for themselves but also for those who will come after them. In this regard, Gamage commented: “We won’t be young forever, so we also need to empower the people who come after us to continue this journey.”