Youths and participation in a democracy

15 Mar, 2020 - 00:03 0 Views
Youths and participation in a democracy

The Sunday News

Michael Mhlanga

On 25 March 2020 there will be an interesting discussion enclosed on youth and climate change discourse. 

A partnership of Konrad Adeneur Stiftung and a Bulawayo-based youth-focused think tank, YIELD convene this important public sphere that triggers an important subject on “inviting” youth voices and interest in complementing climate change efforts from a household to a global level. 

The truth justifying the convention is that young people are “disinterested” in climate change issues, and, there is agency in media and creativity in reshaping those perceptions. 

While that is true, there is need to problematise the lack of interest by those targeted by this important discussion which I have argued in many of my past instalments that there is a tradition of social exclusion of young people in decision making, there is no incentive to participate in something they do not find immediate value in because their hierarchy of needs is hinged on financial security after graduation. They are demoralised by their abject poverty they daily become susceptible and victim to, among a legion of other problems. Some issues, they find not “important”, yet these are “life and death” issues. 

It is no secret that over recent years, young people have been accused of disengaging from society. Much of the surviving arguments indeed indicate that young people have been turning away from what is called more “traditional” participation mechanisms such as voting in elections and membership of political parties and trade unions. While on the other hand, some commentators insist that young people are not disengaging, they have just found different; new and innovative ways to make their voices heard and that sometimes these methods are less visible to decision makers. It is important to characterise participation, from the perspective of a millennial if we are to arrive at a strategy of exciting them to be active in civil matters. 

What do we mean by youth participation? 

Participation is a difficult concept to define. Most commentators agree that participation is a process rather than a one-off event. Participation is an essential element of citizenship in a democratic society. Many of Zimbabwe’s institutions, both public and private repeatedly emphasise the importance of youth participation to foster young people’s active citizenship, enhance their integration and inclusion and strengthen their contribution to the development of democracy. This is consecrated and amplified in section 20 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe which illuminates deliberate inclusion and mainstreaming of young people in decision making. It follows that the active participation of young people in decisions and actions at local, regional and national levels is essential in order to build more democratic, more inclusive and more prosperous societies.

Participation in the democratic life of any community is about more than voting or standing for election, although these are important elements. Participation and active citizenship are about having the right, the means, the space and the opportunity and where necessary the support to participate in and influence decisions and engage in actions and activities so as to contribute to building a better society. Inherent in all definitions of youth participation are young people who have agency, form opinions, act and exert influence. The right of a young person to express their views in all matters affecting them is enshrined in a fundamental right — not only at the constitutional level, but also, for those aged Under-18, in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified international treaty in history. Youth participation involves both “spaces” where young people can express their views and opinions but also opportunities for decision makers to listen to those views and opinions and to take them into account. Youth participation is relevant to individual young people when decisions are being made about an aspect of a young person’s life. For example, their health and their education. It is relevant to young people collectively when decisions impact on many young people, adhering to this avoids what is known as the paradox of youth participation.

Under what has been termed the “paradox of youth participation”, alongside the decrease in formal or conventional forms of participation such as voting and membership of political parties in recent years there has been an increase in informal or unconventional forms of participation. Unconventional forms of political participation include activities but not limited to signing petitions or participating in political demonstrations, which are outside the electoral process or formal political institutions. Much research indicates that young people are far from apathetic, but they are participating more in non-conventional ways. The problem, therefore, is with an over-simplified conception of political participation, one that focuses exclusively on conventional politics and does not see the many other ways in which young people engage with, and participate in, the world around them which policy makers are either “unfond” of or entirely anonymous to them in terms of exposure.

Perennial problems for young people as well as adults are the obstacles to participation that some people face because of their age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, abilities, geographic location and their socio-economic status. Young people are not a homogeneous group. They are as diverse as adults and have variable access to decision-making processes as well as competing political interests. For young people, the risks of exclusion are particularly pronounced as they are in a transitional period in their lives: to adulthood, to autonomy and to independence. Young people who face these different and often more difficult obstacles because of their background (for example, their socio-economic status, educational possibilities) have fewer opportunities to participate in decision making.

Globalisation and an ever-expanding virtual world are generating further diversity. With this increasing diversity, it is even more necessary to expand the concepts of participation and democratic citizenship beyond conventional forms of identifying and nudging youth participation in decision making. There is more to democracy than formal institutions and there is more to political participation than voting and supporting parties.

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