The Debate

How Can Asia Unleash the Potential of Youth?

Asian countries like Cambodia need young people’s help to create a sustainable future.

How Can Asia Unleash the Potential of Youth?
Credit: Pixabay

At the age of 12, Pharady, a girl from a small rural village in Cambodia, was sent 60 kilometers away to live in Kampot because her community did not have a high school for her to attend. With almost no money, and her family so far away, she did what she could to get by.

Early each morning Pharady would wake up to help her neighbors in their rice shop before school in exchange for breakfast. In the afternoons, she would help her teachers in their extra classes so that she could study in the extra class for free. Life was hard. However, her hard work and access to education was instrumental in giving her the skills and self-reliance she needed to seek opportunities and maximize her potential.

Many young people share similar challenges as Pharady. We must ensure that Pharady and her peers across Cambodia learn and grow in an environment conducive for their development. That starts with access to safe spaces within their communities that prioritize their security and dignity. These include knowing where they can get access to services, community support, or simply connect with others who can help them.

For many girls seeking a better life, such as Pharady, where do they go? How do their voices get heard?

The hallmark of any safe space is the ability to voice concerns and participate in decisions that impact your life. Yet for many young people, this important piece is missing.

To reach our shared ambition of achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we must ensure all voices are freely and equally represented in society. Today, 60 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30. Young people make up about a one-third of the country’s roughly 8 million registered voters. This demographic dividend, if harnessed, will be a driving force for social and economic development.

More could be done to ensure the voices of young people are meaningfully represented in the decision-making process. Many young people, like Pharady, want to be more than a boost to the economy. They want their voices heard to when it comes to decisions that impact their lives.

We know this because studies have found that this young generation actually values voting as an important form of political participation, to fulfill their civic duty and to choose the leaders they want.

The Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security captured well the quintessence of being young in 2018: “Young people are mobile both physically through migration and virtually through globalization. Their capacity to transport themselves outside of the boundaries of their lives is potentially transformative, but is viewed by some as a threat, producing an instinct to shut down such sites rather than allowing them to flourish.”

At the global level, the UN is already walking the talk. The newly released UN Strategy for Youth – Youth 2030: Working with and for Young People – prioritizes amplifying youth voices for the promotion of a peaceful, just and sustainable world. More importantly, the strategy appreciates the role of young people as catalysts for peace and prosperity.

In Cambodia, young people can play a key role in tackling inequalities, within and among countries, but they need investment – I don’t only mean monetarily.  They need mentorship, access to healthcare, quality education, skills that meet market demands, access to decent work, and social protection. Most importantly, young people need to be equipped with positive, responsible, and self-reliant behaviors, critical thinking and digital literacy skills that will help them navigate the complexities of a fast-changing world.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution approaches, we are witnessing the public sphere transform before our very eyes and challenges emerge for economic and civic space. Jobs as we know them now will become obsolete. There will be risks to digital rights, threats to transparency, and accountability.

But we must not be afraid of the challenges and look to them as opportunities. How can we use new technologies to enhance the voices of young people, ensure equal participation and improve their lives?

The Royal Government of Cambodia is aware of this impending disruption and is committed to taking action. Commendable initiatives are already underway. For instance, the United Nations, together with the Royal Government, developed a special literacy initiative for factories, commonly referred to as the Factory Literacy Program. We are also working with young women and men, both in-school and out-of-school, to equip them with entrepreneurial and business skills.

However, we need to do more. In the coming months, the United Nations will be ramping up its support and engagement with young people.

The time is now to create smart and transformative policies that give young people the skills they need to meet and prepare for future challenges.

To fulfill the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for a more peaceful, sustainable, and prosperous world, we need young people to lead. Join us in our effort to unleash the potential of youth!

Pauline Tamesis is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Cambodia

Today, October 24, marks the anniversary of the entry into force in 1945 of the UN Charter. This year, the UN Day coincides with the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing an opportunity to highlight the meaning of the Universal Declaration in people’s social and economic lives, and to advocate for inclusive development as an imperative to realization and protection of lasting peace.