This year’s International Youth Day calls for safe spaces for young people; with civic spaces shrinking and violent instability rising, this demand couldn’t be more urgent.
The absence of safe spaces for today’s children and young people, can be devastatingly articulated in physical threats alone:
- Each year, and 2018 is no exception, between 500 million and 1.5 billion children are estimated to experience violence. Accurate figures are almost impossible to calculate as the perpetrators often operate behind closed doors and with impunity.
- Of the 152 million child labourers who are still working at the expense of their childhood and freedom, over half are also in conditions that are hazardous to their health and safety.
- A quarter of all the world’s children live in countries affected by conflict or disaster, and 50 million have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result, with the number of children killed or maimed going up by 300% since 2010.
- Girls, as they so often are, are the most at risk. The World Health Organisation estimates that 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year, with many of these attacks occurring on the way to school or at school. 23 girls every minute are forced into child marriage.
Millions of young people, especially those facing multiple rights violations, lack the basic safety to survive, let alone the space to positively participate in their communities. Even in the absence of physical threat, young people’s ability to effectively participate in the decisions that affect their lives is systematically undermined by the lack of safe, supportive and accessible spaces in which to do so.
The World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) reported in 2017 that just 3% of the world’s population live in countries where civic space is fully open, meaning freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression is protected. In such environments young people, often at the bottom of many hierarchies and facing age-based discrimination, are the least likely to have the space to freely and safely express their views. And with 53 being the global average age of Parliamentarians, the need to create safe spaces for young people to engage in decision-making processes becomes even more paramount.
However, if young people are met with dismissal in more formal institutions of power, when they take to the streets, the lack of safe spaces to protest can have far more dangerous results. Youth-led movements across the world – from Fees Must Fall in South Africa, the recent Bangladeshi student uprising for road safety, to the first stages of the Arab Spring – were all met with reactionary, often state-sponsored, violence from those unwilling to hear their legitimate demands for change.
The failure to provide safe spaces for young people to meaningfully contribute to society doesn’t just harm young people themselves, but threatens global prospects for progress and peace The world is currently home to the largest generation of young people that has ever lived, with 1.8 billion people between the ages 10 and 24. Most – 85% – live in developing countries. If this demographic’s participation isn’t encouraged, with their dignity and rights protected, justice for all is an unattainable goal.
As we continue to experience drastic global changes, from climate change, deepening inequality, mass migration and humanitarian crises, those under 25 will be most impacted by their consequences. Without safe spaces to discuss how these challenges will affect their lives, in all their diversity, the world risks silencing the voices of young people and ignoring almost half the world’s experiences.
How can we build and support safe spaces for young people?
There are numerous international treaties and laws that are designed to protect young people and provide safe spaces for them to thrive. From the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, a treaty which recognised the right of all children to protection, provision and participation, to more targeted legislation such as the Safe Schools Declaration in 2015, aimed at ensuring education remains a safe space from attack during times of conflict.
Yet despite these laws, continuous grave human rights abuses against children and young people, and their growing lack of civic opportunities, have led to International Youth Day 2018 advocating for safe spaces for young people. So, how do we achieve this?
History shows us that power concedes nothing without demand, and that change happens by building people power with the experiences of those most affected by injustice at the centre. Global commitments such as those highlighted above, and – critically – the promises laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals, will only be realised if there is pressure from below.
Young people need safe spaces that allow encourage them to learn about their rights, develop the skills and confidence to speak out, and engage with peers, allies and power-holders. All spaces – physical, political and digital – must not only be free from discrimination and violence, but must also actively seek and support the inclusion of the most marginalised members of society, of which so many are young people.
Young people themselves are leading the innovation of new forms of safe spaces that transcend borders to share their views and oppose injustice. For example, 100 Million youth activists in India, Pakistan, Chile, Brazil, Peru the UK and the US using a WhatsApp group to share their solidarity and coordinate actions in support of two Syrian refugee members’ demand for safe spaces during the chemical attack in Douma, urging their respective governments to take action through social media. Or the self-organised dialogue, broadcast on Facebook, between the 100 Million Youth Committee in Peru and Nicaraguan student activists, discussing Nicaragua’s legacy of violence and trauma, the panorama of left wing politics in Latin America and the power of student activism.
The 100 Million campaign is proud to support these young activists, and all young people across the world, to lead change in their communities: creating safe spaces and opportunities for young people to tell their stories, raise their voices and make their demands for a free, safe and educated world heard. Join us now.