Lively roundtable discussion marks launch of International Year of Youth in Asia-Pacific

The International Year of Youth was off to a dynamic start in the Asian and Pacific region as 200 youth gathered at ESCAP headquarters in Bangkok. The Launch of the Year featured a Roundtable discussion, where five youth representatives joined Heads of UN agencies and Government officials from across the region for a lively discussion.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Shigeru Mochida, Deputy Executive Secretary of ESCAP, described the ideals behind the launch of the Year and the complex challenges faced by youth today. “While the Asia-Pacific region is fast recovering from the economic crisis, the youth unemployment rate, at 10.9 per cent, is twice as high as for the workforce as a whole. Young people also face discrimination and exploitation. They are more exposed to risks, including HIV infection and drug use,” he noted.

“Despite these challenges, young people are not passive observers, but immensely productive and influential contributors to society,” Mr. Mochida said.

Moderated by Mr. James Chau, National UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador and Chinese television presenter, the discussion covered a range of issues including gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, education, employment and the environment. It aimed to discuss how young people, Governments and the UN can best work together to enhance mutual understanding and build more inclusive societies, that harness the energy of youth and value their opinion and contribution to the development process.

The Year coincides with the 25th anniversary of the first International Year of Youth initially observed in 1985.

Reflecting on the unprecedented pace of change that characterizes the past few decades, including the information communication revolution, Ms. Anupama Rao Singh, Regional Director, UNICEF highlighted the contrasts in today’s “transformed world”, which had allowed the crafting and enactment of national laws for the benefit of all, while at the same time alienating traditions and cultures, and experiencing more conflicts targetting civilians.

Coming from different countries across the region, including the Philippines, China, India, Kyrgyztan and the Cook Islands, the youth leaders taking part in the discussion highlighted the complex issues faced by young people and the challenges hindering their greater participation in decision-making. Their opinions were brutally honest and often emotionally charged.

“Beyond this event, will there genuinely be a sustained interest for youth issues?”, questioned Mr. Vimlendu Jha , founder of Swechha, one of India’s leading youth organization.

“We need our voices to be heard, if only the language and communication barriers are also overcome… If not international organizations and development partners have failed the youth”.

Overall, the panellists agreed that it was time for positive change. “We undeniably need a switch in the way one relates to young persons,” conceded Mr. Minar Pimple, Director, UN Millennium Campaign. The extreme diversity of living conditions, opportunities, needs and aspirations experienced by the estimated 700 million young persons living across the region was also an important feature of the discussion.

UNAIDS Asia-Pacific Regional Support Team Director, Mr. Steve Kraus urged all stakeholders working on issues pertaining to youth “to break out of their comfort zones and expand their horizons”. “We need to get real about young people; they are what they are, and not what we want them to be”, he said, alluding to their diverse sexual orientations, lifestyles and aspirations.

There was a youthful energy about the dialogue which was often punctuated by roars of laughter, thanks in no small part to the spirit of the moderator. However, all participants were equally serious when joining together to make a pledge of commitment by signing their names on a large poster. The pledges were about finding common ground and realizing common aspirations for a future where all voices are heard. One of the pledges on the poster read: “Youth are the leaders of today.” From the inspiring young voices heard across the roundtable, this may certainly be true.