I have been to some of the places with the worst humanitarian conditions in the world, but even there the numbers were better than the ones we are seeing here today, particularly when it comes to youth unemployment and child marriage rates and rates of gender-based violence.
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Envoy for Youth, could not hide her astonishment as statistics from South Sudan’s first-ever State of the Adolescents and Youth Report were revealed. Few can blame her, as competition for most outstandingly mind-boggling stats was fierce.
A top-5 might include the 2.2 million South Sudanese children missing out on school altogether, 86 per cent of children attending primary school failing to complete it, 31 per cent of girls aged 15-19 years have begun childbearing, more than half of women aged 20-24 got married before they turned 18, and 98 per cent of girls between 15 and 19 years of age who are currently in a relationship are not using any kind of family planning methods.
Calling the results a very good eye-opener for the government and development partners to genuinely understand the issues facing young people in the country, the Envoy urged prompt action.
I want all of you to wake up, to put some fire under your feet and understand how serious and urgent this is, she said.
While Ms. Wickramanayake hailed this first attempt at capturing a snapshot of the situation of South Sudan’s youth as a very good push in the right direction to say that these are the numbers, this is the evidence, these are the areas we need to focus on, the true statistics are in fact likely to be even more dramatic than those presented.
The small sample included in the report, 362 adolescents and youths, was mainly drawn from towns, leaving most rural areas, where conditions are believed to be worse, out of the picture. The summary of the report also concedes that the sample has no gender parity, especially in the government institutions, which also mean flattering overall numbers as the plight of girls and young women is worse, across the board, than that of their male peers.
The reality as reflected in the report is, however, bleak enough, with 80 per cent of the population living in poverty (on less than one dollar a day), 90 per cent of youth having no formal employment and a majority of youth being unemployed and unemployable.
A lack of access to education and vocational training is arguably a root cause of several other ills, but Kevin Abalo John believes that what is needed to tackle the problems is yet another step back in the chain of causes and effects.
Advocacy and awareness-raising on the importance of education must be a priority. There are many young people, especially girls, who don’t know what education is all about. That is why many people think that going to school is a waste of time, that it is better to get married, she says.
Some parents force them [their children] to get married and tell their daughters about the disadvantages of going to school. They say ‘you’d better get married to a rich man and help your family’, but if these girls are empowered and made aware of their rights and the importance of learning they will never drop out of school, the founder and executive director of Resilience Organization, and also the chairperson of the Youth Action Movement, believes.
Youth participation in politics and democratic processes is another major challenge, with the report, produced by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports with technical assistance from UN entities, admitting that young people are systematically excluded from decision making based on their young age and inexperience with politics regarded as a space for mature and experienced persons.
It sounds all too familiar to Kevin Abalo John.
In most meetings, when we are invited, we are considered as young people who don’t know anything, and our contributions and ideas are not recognised. Another problem is that we are sometimes represented by people who are not our age, but by old people. This is a major challenge, freedom of speech. We are not given that opportunity, the eloquent 23-year-old states.
Such restrictions, the report says, create their own problems, as limited democratic space has seen young people engage in hate speech to vent their frustrations, with incitements to conflict and violence being common.
From the government and the UN there is a responsibility to create that safe space for young people of different backgrounds to come together and have open and honest conversations about what things are wrong but also how to turn them right, commented the UN Youth Envoy, who also urged youth organizations to use the data from the report for campaigning, for communication, for advocacy and to mobilize around these needs for participation.
But this cannot be done if we as young people are divided across ethnic lines, or clan lines, or political lines, Ms. Wickramanayake cautioned.
So, what are the good news? The Youth Envoy offered her take.
We don’t need to invent the solutions. If you ask the young people in this room, they will tell you what needs to be done to empower young girls, to stop gender-based violence, to facilitate youth participation. We just need to listen, she said.
Kevin Abalo John also knows what to do about backward, harmful cultural practices, and says that it is already happening.
The good thing is that there are girls who are aware and do challenge their parents because they know their rights and know that early marriages can destroy their lives. Some of these girls are actually now going around mentoring other girls about this, said Kevin, who is one of them.
With 70 per cent of the population being young, you can either see this as nine million challenges, or as nine million opportunities for peace, development and progress, the Youth Envoy concluded.
Source: UN Mission in South Sudan