Young people are the largest demographic group in Zimbabwe and are some of the most affected globally by a host of development issues. It is my understanding that 87% of the youth live in the developing countries, 47% of the world’s youths are unemployed, and 40% of all new infections occur in the age bracket of 15-24 years. Yet, young people remain unrecognized as the vanguard for the future.

 

In Zimbabwe, people between the ages of 15 and 34 comprise 56% of the economically-active population.  But despite the number – which can be argued to reflect both the passion and otherwise undervalued professional experience of young people – their collective voice remains unheard, meaning that they rarely have the opportunity to contribute to, or influence,  developmental policy and its practice.

But young people have the right to be heard; not just because it is right, but because it is strategically beneficial to tap this invaluable resource.  Public engagement on development issues is still low, so low that issues that might otherwise have been resolved by now linger.  According to the Zimbabwe 2012 population census, my country has an astonishingly young population: of the total population of 13,061,239, metrics indicate that 77% of this group consist of people below 35 years of age.  Youth aged 15-34 years constitute 36% of the national population and 56% of the economically active population.  Yet, they remain neglected.

Unemployment is one of the major challenges confronting the young people in Zimbabwe today.  Available data indicates that despite being their number, young people are the hardest hit by unemployment.  The 2012 Population Census data shows that the youth aged the aforementioned age bracket comprises 84% of the nation’s unemployed population, hitting people between the ages of 15 and 24 years the hardest at a rate of 55% unemployment.

There is a gendered dimension to youth unemployment.  There are higher levels of unemployment among female youths despite there being more females than males in the population, and this is particularly pronounced in rural landscapes.  Unemployment breeds a host of the problems amongst youth populations borne of desperation, such as professional and personal exploitation, abuse, increased abuse of drugs, high rates of HIV infection, as well as unwanted and teenage pregnancies.

In order to address this pervasive issue, the government of Zimbabwe has developed a number of policies to address the economic empowerment needs of Zimbabwean youth.  The focus of these policies revolves around skills development and employment creation, as well as creating sustainable economic growth in the country.  These policies have spawned a number of initiatives including, amongst others, the drafting of the National Skills Development Policy (still in progress), a review of the National Youth Policy, a review of the Vocational Training programme to create a focus on Training for Enterprise, and the Indigenization and Economic Empowerment program.

The National Youth Policy serves as a guideline to how the youth can speak to issues in the economic, political and cultural space.  However, despite listing 12 thematic areas for which the policy seeks solutions, 5 of those issues remain pertinent:

1. Education and skills development

2. Youth employment

3. Sustainable livelihood

4. Gender equality and equity

5. Youth empowerment and participation.

Unfortunately, dissemination of this information has not yet yielded success.  Very few young people are aware of the existence of these policies, and from the pool of those who do, not many actively understand these policies.  This is so for a number of reasons: youth are not consulted during the crafting of these policies and programs, they are misinformed and lack the appropriate resources to fact-check, or some consider it politicized beyond their right to access, despite constitutional protections for the right to engage with such issues.  This makes it difficult for youth to make reasonable impact in the developmental issues of the country.  Frameworks must be made that comprehensively allow for youth to be informed, alert, and educated on how to engage with these policies, or challenge them if their applicability is redundant to their needs.

Article 2 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone is entitled to the rights set forth in this declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political and other opinion, national, social origin, property, birth or other status”

Self-determination is in itself a right enshrined in the Zimbabwean Bill of Rights alongside the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and so there is need for closer attention to the vital links between democracy, development, and satisfaction of basic needs – and with special attention granted to the most disadvantaged sectors of the community such as women, children, youth, and disabled people, who are most vulnerable to poverty, unemployment, HIV and AIDS, food insecurity, and a lack basic amenities such as water and sanitation.

It is unacceptable that in the drafting of policies such as the Indigenization and Empowerment Bill, young people are totally left out of the picture and are subsequently subject to marginalization by the power-holding minorities that otherwise perceive themselves to be the majority.  In Zimbabwean society, youth are oftentimes both the major perpetrators and predominant victims of politically-motivated disturbances.  Young people are not passive in political systems that attempt to make them so.  They know the future they want: one in which there is a fulfillment of basic rights, a conducive environment, no intimidation or discrimination, and the opportunity to have a meaningful stake in decisions that impact their wellbeing.

Due to the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, its youth have migrated for greener pastures abroad, whilst other young people have been negatively affected as their families are dispersed.  More tragically still, it seems that the majority of young people have found themselves on the streets and without formal employment.  The government must enact its existing obligation to that nation’s youth, and prioritize the importance of young people in the process of developing national planning processes accordingly.  Little is being done to address youth issues, and their needs go without advocacy due to absence of young people in key decision-making areas of governance.

Young people have never been more prominent in the international development discourse.  Government and development agencies are beginning to recognize the significance of this demographic force and the unique skills, knowledge, and energy that young people bring to development initiatives, but as is common in the development space, implementation is slow.

It is said that Africa is rich and is growing, but in uncontained and ill-considered growth, young people are being left behind.  With Zimbabwe’s economy resting heavily on natural resources such as mining and agricultural land, the absence of youth in the formulation of policies that govern these spaces mean that they do not have access to either these resources directly, nor to the management of such.  Because of this, there are few advocates in this space qualified speak to the issues of sustainability around the use of these natural resources. Young people tend to have a more pronounced passion for the issues of climate justice and economic justice, and to disregard their insight is to make a grievously unsustainable error.

As young people begin to advance their voice in these high-level spaces, it is vital that they seek to address the dearth of policies that provide protections for vulnerable or disadvantaged youth demographics such as girls, young women, rural youth (where there is the highest number of abuses against women and teenage pregnancies), out-of-school youth, informal workers, youth living with disabilities, youths who have migrated, and refugees.  As the more privileged young people find their platforms, they have an obligation to ensure accessibility to these same conversations for others, so no voices are left behind.

Emerging nations have an obligation to their youth engagement to create meaningful engagement on the global and domestic stage.  The large population of young people represents both a challenge and an opportunity for development, and its duration is a limited window in which to develop a larger and younger workforce who can drive economic development and play a significant role in the social development of their communities and society. The number of young people seeking to work in this sector represents a rare opportunity; an investment in putting our money where our mouths are when we talk about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  Focus must be directed to strengthening young people’s abilities to meet their own subsistence needs; prevent and reduce vulnerabilities to economic, political and socially unstable environments; promote ownership and ensure sustainability of interventions.  This can be done by working with the youth as beneficiaries, engaging youth as partners, supporting youth as leaders of today and not tomorrow in the thematic areas of governance, voice and accountability, post-conflict transitions and livelihoods, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Combined with high-level participation and engagement with the youth, Zimbabwe can set a benchmark for youth engagement that can be replicated across the global development stage.

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