International conventions and agreements have
enshrined a set of human rights, state responsibilities,
and principles for democratic governance.
Some – like the Convention on the Rights
of the Child; the Programme of Action of the
International Conference on Population and Development;
the World Programme of Action for
Youth, and the Vancouver Declaration on Human
Settlements – have sought to establish young
people’s rights and create the conditions in
which to exercise them. Young people’s rights include
the right to adequate housing, the right to
a safe living environment, the right to education
and health care, and the right to basic services such as sanitation and clean water. Freedom of expression and association, and participation in decisions that affect their lives, are also part of young people’s human rights.
Despite international conventions and agreements,
the rights of young people in many
countries have not moved from paper to practice. Large numbers continue to live in poor conditions, without access to basic social services, existing from day to day. Poverty excludes many young people from civic participation. They have no access to decision-making forums, nor are they acknowledged as partners in the decisionmaking process.
Opportunities for participation are important both for the development and socialization of individuals and for the political and economic stability of the larger society. Participation ensures the sustainability and strength of democracy. (1) Young people’s experience of citizenship and community involvement affects the extent and kind of civic participation throughout their lives.(2)
Research suggests that young people today are more likely than older adults to participate in community organizations.(3) Some low-income countries, including China, India and Nigeria, show evidence of increased youth civic and political interest,(4) though opportunities for public engagement are generally higher for urban youth than for their rural counterparts, and for the educated and the better-off.
With the global expansion of information and
communication technologies, new forms of
engagement reach beyond local and national boundaries. Many young people have access to the Internet through schools, cybercafes or personal computers, and connect with their peers around the globe through online community forums, where they can find information and inspiration, and get involved in their local and global communities.
Active citizenship encourages collective action, which can yield more effective and better-targeted public services. At the local level, community involvement has been particularly effective in managing such local public goods as water supply, sanitation, roads, schools and health clinics.(5)
Geeta’s story shows that active citizenship and
community participation can empower previously
excluded groups and bring opportunities for
personal wellbeing and higher living standards.
In a growing number of countries, federations
like Mahila Milan, formed by the urban poor
themselves, are demonstrating new, cost effective
programmes that transform the lives
of thousands of their members.(6) Many
of their initiatives recover their costs, and the profits go
into new programmes.(7) In many
young men and women are playing a key role in leading such initiatives. Young people also tend to lead the protests when bureaucrats or developers try to clear slum areas without alternative housing for the residents.
Gender disparities in levels of public participation still exist in many countries. Girls often have fewer opportunities than boys to participate and exercise their civic rights. Among urban slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro, boys score significantly higher than girls on every dimension of citizenship, including political participation; membership in community or civic organizations (excluding churches); seeking out government agencies, and having official legal documents.(8) In many societies there are significant and pervasive gender differences in the ability to own, inherit, or acquire property, an asset critical not only for economic prosperity and security but also for domestic power relations, social status and individual sense of agency.(9)
Successful municipal initiatives throughout Latin America have demonstrated that active consultation with young people helps to develop solutions for their concerns.(10) Karachi, Pakistan; Capetown, South Africa, and other cities have involved young slumdwellers in surveying, documenting and mapping their urban communities, generating essential data and information for city authorities. These initiatives have helped to build partnerships with official agencies in ways that strengthen and support young people’s participation, and have influenced the planning, finance and management of urban infrastructure.(11)
To improve the lives of urban young people, countries need better governance, especially at the urban and local levels; policies should promote the decentralization of resources and responsibilities to the lowest possible administrative level; improve security of tenure and property rights for the poor; and strengthen youth participation in policymaking.
Legal identity should be available to the millions
of young people whose births were not registered
and who lack formal papers.(12) This
basic move both increases their sense of belonging to
society and improves their access to social institutions
and services. Accountability in government,
broad access to justice, and civil society
advocacy and participation can help young
people make choices based on a sense of self
and personal competence, and allows them to
contribute to the collective well-being as citizens
and members of their communities.