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Q&A: “Young People Are Invisible Until They Become a Problem”

Daniela Estrada interviews DINA KRAUSKOPF

SANTIAGO, Dec 1 2008 (IPS) - Latin American and Caribbean countries with specific laws and policies on young people must now move on to concrete actions, international consultant Dina Krauskopf told IPS in this interview.

The First Latin American Congress of Young Researchers on Youth, which brought together representatives from 17 countries in the region, came to a close last Friday, Nov. 28, in the Chilean capital.

The meeting featured the presentation of the works of 60 scholarship recipients of the Latin American Collective of Young People (Colectivo Latinoamericano de Jóvenes), formed in 2007 by Krauskopf with the technical support of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and funding from the Kellogg Foundation.

Most of the recipients were university students, but there were also young people from lower socioeconomic strata who have not had access to higher studies.

“After decades of working on youth issues, I’ve come to the conclusion that young people possess forms of knowledge that we, as adults, lack,” Krauskopf says. “They are often invited to give their opinion at meetings, but until now they hadn’t been given the chance to research the issues that specifically affect them.”

The written works and documentaries presented by the recipients of the scholarships touch on various subjects, including violence, sexuality, employment, arts and culture, technology, and indigenous peoples.


For example, “there are innovative pieces on young Colombian fighters who decide to put down their weapons, or on adolescent hermaphrodites and their right not to feel they have to choose one or the other sex,” Krauskopf notes.

But most of the research addresses political issues. “Popular belief has it that young people are not interested in politics. But they are interested in critical analyses, in other forms of having a say in politics, in social participation,” she says.

“The Dominican Republic’s Youth Act was studied by a 22-year-old researcher who conducted a participatory investigation and drew some very interesting conclusions, so much so that the government is applying them. He has also been consulted by Venezuela and other places. He’s had a say in politics,” says this Chilean expert who spent 32 years of her life in Costa Rica.

Before a new call for scholarship applications is opened, the written works produced by the recipients will be published in all of the countries involved.

Governments must design “policies of inclusiveness and equality,” which according to Klauskopf, “cannot be aimed at imaginary youths.” And she adds that the countries that have made progress in terms of legislation and policies must now move on to the next stage, and implement concrete actions.

IPS: At the Ibero-American Summit held in El Salvador in late October, the financial crisis dominated discussions, pushing the central theme of the event, which was precisely youth and development, into the background. It would seem that for governments young people are not a priority… DINA KRAUSKOPF: That’s what always happens with young people. They’re never a priority. They’re invisible. The irony is that precisely at the very summit on youth and development, youth was once again invisible. The governments decided that the economic crisis was much more important. They even invited (Colombian singer) Shakira, who works with small children. Why didn’t they invite some other celebrity, from the many who do great work with young people?

It’s unbelievable. Young people have been made invisible in our society and they are only now beginning to come into view. I always give the same example. If we talk about the elderly as being in the third stage of life, it’s because the first is childhood and the second adulthood.

But traditionally there is no conception of youth as such in our minds, because there was a period in history when the transition was much shorter, people went from childhood directly into young adulthood. Our collective imaginary has not caught up with the times, it’s still lagging behind.

Young people are invisible, but they become noticeable when they act up. Which explains the image society has of young people as problematic. And when young people work and do a good job, they’re not seen as young people but as successful businesspersons.

IPS: What do you think of the way the region’s countries have addressed the issues of crime and the criminal responsibility of minors? DK: It’s very alarming. The impulse of society is always to cry out for punishment. Punishment offers security, peace of mind, so much so that some Salvadoran researchers have called these punishment strategies “punitive populism,” meaning that when people clamour for control, the authorities respond by applying severe punishments to put their minds at rest.

If instead you say you’re going to apply a preventive method, you’re going to study these communities, see what they’re lacking, people are not satisfied. There’s a problem of immediacy of response that is demanded from politics, that leads to this increase in repressive solutions, which in practice have proved ineffective.

Every case must be studied individually, which is something that people have a lot of trouble understanding. That’s what judges and courts are for. We can’t generalise.

Juvenile justice systems are characterised precisely by the possibility of applying alternative sentences because they deal with offenders who have still not fully developed as individuals. These alternative sentences can be corrective measures capable of preventing punishment from turning into a school of crime.

But, on the one hand, people perceive the juvenile justice system as too soft. So they start lowering the age of criminal responsibility and end up treating juveniles as adults, and not as individuals that are still developing, which is what has happened in Chile.

On the other hand, it’s also true that merely passing laws on alternative measures is not enough, and that an institutional framework is necessary to implement them. That requires investment. If we want to help young people develop their full potential, we have to start investing in them. And the reason society does not invest in them is because they have been made invisible.

IPS: You say that the group’s scholarship recipients are essentially political, but in the region, the participation of young people in elections and political parties is low. DK: In one of the presentations, a Peruvian recipient said, “we elect, but we don’t decide.” I think that sums up very eloquently how young people feel, why in many countries they are reluctant to participate in elections. But when they feel that they’re going to be given the possibility of participating and deciding, they get involved.

Very few of them are engaged in activities of political parties. In the first place, because parties do not inspire their trust. And secondly, because the structure of parties is not the type of structure they want, they don’t want hierarchy or bureaucracy or representatives.

There are always going to be young people interested in political parties, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not the structure that has shaped youth in modern times.

Also, it’s not like there’s a youth project promoted by the young sectors of a party; rather the party’s young members get involved in the party’s agenda and once they’re in the party, they learn to operate within it.

That’s something that really doesn’t appeal to young people. We’re at a time when identities are increasingly important and the identity of young people is emerging as an identity in its own right. It used to be that you were a young politician, a young worker, a young student, now you’re just a young person.

IPS: In Chile, young people have gathered in what are known as ‘urban tribes,’ calling themselves ‘pokemons,’ ‘emos,’ ‘otakus,’ and other such names drawn from Japanese culture; they dress outrageously and put on colourful make-up. Some hang around town squares, drinking and getting high, looking for homosexual encounters, and this stirs people up. How do you see this phenomenon? DK: To begin with, if we counted all the young people that participate in those groups, we’d see that they’re really very few. They’re just in a very visible place. But that doesn’t mean that a huge number of young people have found an answer in such groups.

Secondly, not all the young people who are in these urban tribes are drinking and getting high. Many go to school like any other normal kid, and then they dress up to go meet up with their group.

They’re drawn together primarily by their visibility. They’re united by the idea of making themselves really noticeable, of showing that they exist, even by being scary or freaking people out, because that empowers them. It’s a reaction to our making them invisible. We only make them visible when they scare us, when they commit an offence or when they belong to some tribe. There’s no interest in making any of the other activities of youths visible.

 
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