UNP National Youth Front leader focuses on how to bring the marginalised into the mainstream
The following is the speech delivered by Ruwan Wijewardene, United National Party (UNP) Parliamentarian, UNP Leadership Council Member and National Youth Front Chairman, at the World Conference on Youth 2014’s session on “Empowering Marginalised Youth” on Friday, May 9.
It gives me great pleasure in being able to address this gathering at the Plenary Sessions of the World Conference on Youth 2014 held in my home country and as a member of the Opposition in Sri Lanka I am grateful to the Government of Sri Lanka for inviting me to address today’s session on “Empowering Marginalised Youth”.
Empowering Marginalized Youth including Most-at-Risk Young People
Marginalisation is a kind of exclusion or isolation of the young people from the main political, social, and economic mainstreams.
Youth marginalisation also can be divided as follows.
1. Economic marginalisation
2. Political marginalisation
3. Social marginalisation
Commonly marginalised groups of young people often include young women and girls, rural youth, youth with different health conditions, and indigenous and pastoral youth.
Most at risk young people
WHO defines most-at-risk populations as:
Men who have sex with men
People who inject drugs
People who do sex work
Most-at-risk populations are disproportionately affected by HIV in most, if not all, epidemic contexts.
These WHO guidelines define key populations to include both vulnerable and most-at-risk populations. They are important to the dynamics of HIV transmission in a given setting and are essential partners in an effective response to the epidemic. People living with HIV are considered a key population in all epidemic contexts.
According to estimates, young people aged 15 to 24 represent 45 per cent of all new HIV infections globally, and in Asia, over 95 per cent of these new infections occur among young people in key affected populations.
Stigma & Discrimination
Widespread stigma and discrimination against people who do sex work, men engaging in male-to-male sex, transgender people and people who use drugs, limits their access to HIV prevention.
Discrimination also limits the access many young people have to sexual and reproductive health products and services. Many countries require parental consent before young people can receive HIV tests or where they are legal, harm-reduction services such as sterile needles and syringes while young people often face breaches of confidentiality when accessing these services.
According to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, 90 per cent of countries in the Asia-Pacific still have laws that act as barriers to HIV response. For example, 16 Asia-Pacific countries impose travel bans on people living with HIV, 19 countries imprison individuals engaging in same-sex relations and 29 countries criminalise sex work.
In Sri Lanka a recent study on media coverage of key populations done by UNDP states that:
“Almost half the coverage (46.3%) presented male to male sex and Trans-Gender as ‘immoral’, while female sex workers were primarily positioned both as ‘criminals’ and ‘victims’ (44.1% and 32.5% respectively). Coverage of people using drugs, who account for the maximum coverage, was overwhelmingly that of criminals (96%). While data on PLHIV fell mostly in the ‘positive’ category (36%), closer examination indicates that much of it was event-centric coverage such as World AIDS Day (WAD) rather than a positive depiction of PLHIV as confronting and overcoming everyday challenges. About 27% of the coverage on PLHIV positioned them as ‘victims’ doomed to die tragic deaths, with little urgency to alter their destinies.”
Media coverage is a reflection of perceptions of the society and at the same time it shapes the perception of the society. This kind of criminalisation leads to society either shunning or victimising these youth. There have been reports of heroin addicts placed in mental institutions and abandoned by their families.
Recommendations for empowering marginalized youth includingmost- at-risk young people
Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)
CSE provides comprehensive and accurate information, encouraging young people to start thinking critically and communicate with trusted adults on such issues. CSE encourages safe sexual practices and also early health seeking behaviours which are vital for prevention of HIV and STDs. Ideally, sex education in school is an integrated process that builds upon itself year after year, is initiated in kindergarten and provided through grade 12.
Advocates for Youth Organization states,“Evaluations of comprehensive sex education programmes show that these programmes can help youth delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraceptive use.”
Legal and Policy environment: Sensitisation of legislators, parliamentarians, judiciary and law enforcement agencies to work towards replacing the current punitive laws, policies and practices with more rights-based approaches.
Enhanced capacity of the health system to respond to health concerns of same-sex and transgender people; the need for expanding coverage to deliver HIV prevention, treatment, care and allied health services.
Engaging with the public media to ensure a more balanced and respectful portrayal of HIV, same-sex relations and transgender issues resulting in a reduction of stigma and discrimination. Working to ensure that relevant health information for same-sex relations and transgender people can be published.
Turning to my personal experience and commitment
As a working politician representing the Youth Wing of my Political Party, in addition to my task of representing my constituency, I wish to cover some of the real problems that I encounter in my daily work as it relates to the marginalised young people, which I believe is NO different in many countries around the world.
I come across marginalised youth both male and female who are migrants from economically poorer regions of our country, who come to my Constituency in search of work, and thus HAVE to live away from home, often under harsh conditions, in boarding houses sharing rooms with many others from other parts.
There are many who are single-minded and focused, and arrive with the discipline, not to get into trouble, and are able to save and return home once they are able to satisfy their personal objectives. However not everyone is so fortunate to have that comfort, as they face problems in their home villages that result in their having to come to places where there is employment to live and are not armed with the same level of maturity.
They, who are of lesser strength of character, have to protect themselves from the social ills of the day, especially in urban areas, where the lure of temptation often exceeds the funds available to fulfil them. This leads to pressure to get into illegal activity with promises made by unscrupulous opportunists, who prey on their mental weaknesses, and inevitably get them into trouble.
"This is why special attention to include both the rights of the disabled youth, and migrant youth issues, in any youth-related empowerment programme is essential. If not, society will pay the price of this neglect, in the form of higher expenditure in future..."
This may be prostitution, drug distribution and addiction, and getting involved with the wrong people, completely unaware of their ulterior motives. This results in them having to face problems that they cannot resolve by returning to their homes, which then leads to a life of misery being shoved from pillar to post.
This issue of migrant youth who come from the rural areas to urban centres is not peculiar to Sri Lanka, but is prevalent throughout the world. When they are marginalised in their host communities, as they have NO fall-back, it is important that social and state services are provided to give them some degree of comfort and security, to address their plight, so that they do not add to the already bursting prison populations, where they end up in a worse situation, making criminals out of previously law abiding young people. The alternative is to go underground and get into cliques and become part of the underworld subculture seeking solace in the gang culture, turning them into followers of a life of crime.
It is therefore important that the Colombo Declaration of Youth to be issued at the conclusion of this Conference, be specific enough to demand that these youth, who due to their lack of permanent abodes, who also do not become part of the electoral process in their host communities, and therefore are of NO concern to the local political processes that can address their grievances, have a method of being empowered to face these challenges and overcome the obstacles.
This is why special attention to include both the rights of the disabled youth, and migrant youth issues, in any youth-related empowerment programme is essential. If not, society will pay the price of this neglect, in the form of higher expenditure in future, on crime prevention, on incarceration, medical services, and psychological services in helping them survive. Instead, and on the other hand if the declaration is enacted by member states, they will be part of the economic fabric of their societies, contributing their fair share to the upliftment of the communities they happen to live in.
"Media coverage is a reflection of perceptions of the society and at the same time it shapes the perception of the society. This kind of criminalisation leads to society either shunning or victimising these youth."
I know I selected just one aspect of the marginalised and I know there are many that you have been presented with in this forum, however identifying what they are and proposing and enacting a practical solution is what is needed, and quite possible if there is sufficient emphasis placed.
In this respect as a law maker in my own Country I personally pledge to support this initiative, with all the resources at my disposal, and wish that you can take back a similar pledge to your Countries and pressure your lawmakers to do likewise.
It is VERY important that we make sure that this Conference results in positive change, for the betterment of Youth in all their differences and complexities. Only then can we hold our heads up high and tell others that we were truly participants in an international effort that actually worked, and not merely words of platitude.