Stakeholders in the present

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - August 11, 2020 - 12:00am

They say that the children are our future (and if that line does not remind you of a song, you’re probably one of those children yourself). It’s a principle that one would be hard pressed to disagree with – and yet at the same time it misses something crucial: the fact that those children are already here, in the now, with present needs and present rights.

For all that modern society appears to value childhood, the young remain one of the most vulnerable sectors of society. Many civil, political and economic rights are withheld until the age of majority is reached, and while there may be good and scientifically-based reasons for many of these, the fact remains that this prevents the young from having a voice. They are too often marginalized when it comes to the shaping of laws and policies, even those that directly affect them. And yet while adults seldom listen to the young, the young are constantly being bombarded by messages from adults – about what to wear and what to buy, what is right and what is wrong. In the interactions between the young and adults, or with the institutions and systems that adults control, the imbalance of power is clear. The young are not treated as subjects with wills of their own but instead as objects, as consumers, as followers… to be led, molded or exploited as the powers-that-be see fit.

The disconnect between the desires of the young for a voice, and the way they are treated by adults and institutions, becomes more keenly felt as they grow older – when we begin to speak of them as “youths” and not “children.” According to the United Nations, while there is no universally agreed international definition of the youth age group, the UN itself defines ‘youth’ as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. But however youth may be defined in numbers, it’s almost universally a time of great change in the lives of each person.

But the youth, whose lives are defined by change, are also often agents of change in the wider world.

Today, according to data from the United Nations, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16 percent of the global population. In ten years, that number is projected to grow to nearly 1.3 billion. As we celebrate International Youth Day on Aug. 12, we must recognize the need for governments worldwide to heed their youth. This is both an acknowledgment of a moral imperative of elders, as well as the statement of a simple fact – the youth will not allow themselves to be ignored.

Whether it be combatting climate change across the globe or gun regulation in America or democracy in Egypt, youth movements have led the charge. Here in the Philippines, students have traditionally been some of the most vocal participants in political discourse. Time and again, youth around the world have put a lie to stereotypes that they are disengaged or uninterested in political matters. When it comes to concrete issues with ramifications on their futures, the youth will show up. The youth will fight.

This initiative and fervor will serve them well because the future they are fighting to protect is one filled with challenges and insecurities. The environmental crisis brought about by climate change is at a tipping point according to experts. A recent international study set at 95 percent the chance that a doubling of carbon dioxide – which the world is “on course” to reach within the next five decades – would trigger catastrophic damage to the Earth and its habitats.

And now, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in the best-case scenario where a vaccine is both effective and widely distributed, the damage wrought by the pandemic to communities and economies will persist for many years. According to the United Nations, the increase in unemployment as a result of COVID-19 “is expected to exceed the rise in rates of unemployment in the aftermath of the 2009 global financial crisis.” Today’s youth will also have to enter that job market after weathering an unprecedented disruption in educational systems.

The future of our youth is in peril, that much is clear. And in the fight to secure that future, our children need concrete help not later, but now.

While the youth drive movements, it is the adults that control systems and institutions. For a nation to move forward, movements and government must not only co-exist, but learn from each other. For those of us in government, it is our obligation to interrogate our systems to make them responsive to the voices of the youth. Organs of the State such as LGUs, sports bodies, law enforcement and school regulators are entities which create and enforce rules that affect both the everyday lives and the future prospects of our youth. This legal framework that girds their lives cannot and should not be created without input from the youth themselves. To do that would be to disenfranchise the very people we claim to be building a better world for.

No less than our Constitution provides that “the State recognizes the vital role of the youth in nation-building and shall promote and protect their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual and social well-being. It shall inculcate in the youth patriotism and nationalism, and encourage their involvement in public and civic affairs.” Several laws have also been passed recognizing the vital role of the youth in nation-building, such as the Youth in Nation-Building Act, Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act and the Youth Entrepreneurship Act.

In each government office we must ask ourselves: Are we accessible to the youth? Do we regularly consult with them? Do we open channels of communication? Do we have programs that would allow them to assist us in sustainable ways?

The youth are more than inheritors of the future – they are stakeholders in the present.

Consistent with the theme of this year’s International Youth Day, we must acknowledge that involving the youth in the political process benefits not only the youth themselves but also the government and the public. Whenever there has been sweeping changes in society, the youth have always been at the forefront. Time and history are on the side of our children.

Let us stand with them as well.

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