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Development & Aid

Leadership Growing Young

STOCKHOLM, Apr 29 2014 (IPS) - Fidelis Molao was 33 when he ran in elections to become a member of parliament in Botswana for the first time in 2010. He was one of the youngest MPs in the country at the time, and still is. He has long championed youth rights.

Across the Atlantic, in Trinidad and Tobago, medical doctor and MP Amery Browne is 41 and the youngest member of the opposition party, the People’s National Movement, in the lower house of parliament. He previously served in the government as minister of social development and has made rights to health care a central part of his work.

“There are some people in my parliament who were elected before I was born, and you can see that they’ve lost steam and energy."

The two parliamentarians reflect the changing face of politics in developing or middle-income countries. With the world now having the biggest percentage of young people in history, youth – long under-represented in politics – is making its presence felt.

“When I was head of the Youth Council in my country, we used to have a statement: anything for us, without us, is against us,” Molao told IPS. “I may be young, but I’m equally a member of parliament.”

Molao and Browne were among the 260 parliamentarians from 134 countries attending the sixth International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action that took place in Stockholm Apr. 23-25.

Among other goals, the participants all reaffirmed their commitment to “adopt laws to promote and protect human rights and eliminate discrimination without distinction of any kind” as they work to implement the programme of action adopted 20 years ago at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt.

In their wide-ranging Stockholm Statement of Commitment, the parliamentarians also pledged to “design policies and programmes that harness the demographic dividend through enhancing the capabilities of young people to contribute to social and economic development and innovation.”

Put simply, policy makers realise that including youth in political decisions, especially regarding sexual health and reproductive rights, can reap benefits for a country. With their technological proficiency with social media, young people can also help to reach their peers. But one of the problems is to get older parliamentarians to make room for them.

“There are some people in my parliament who were elected before I was born, and you can see that they’ve lost steam and energy,” Molao said. “You need new ideas and fresh ambition.”

Getting young people to become active in politics is also an issue, but once they are there, they can push for legislation that will help to improve human rights, particularly regarding women and marginalised groups, he told IPS.

Dianne Stewart, director of the information and external relations division at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which co-organised the conference, said that national policies to encourage youth involvement are crucial. She said there had been “clear gaps” in global development goals, as young people as a group had been “left behind”.

Young women especially have been affected as they are “still the largest group dying from complications related to childbirth and pregnancy” and are also the biggest victims of gender-based violence and sexual assault, she told IPS.

“We have the largest generation of young people on the planet that we’ve ever had, so what are we going to do in terms of making sure that their needs are addressed,” Stewart said. “It’s a huge prospect potentially for new economies if we make sure we take care of their needs and give them opportunities.

“Young women particularly need access to contraception, they need services, they need protection, and they need to be able to stay in school to complete their education,” she added.

In the Caribbean, where some countries have a high level of discrimination against the LGBT community, and alarming incidents of violence against women, Browne of Trinidad and Tobago said that revision of laws were necessary to protect individuals.

“Slowly people are becoming aware of the reality that we’re all human, and that we can’t talk about human rights while excluding human beings, and that’s just a fundamental principle,” Browne said.

“I have hope for a more equitable future for everyone because if we look back over the last hundred years, and we look at where we are today, there are many groups and sub-populations across the world that were heavily attacked, discriminated against, and vilified that have now achieved equal status,” he added.

Browne and several other parliamentarians under the age of 50 stood out at the Stockholm conference with their apparent sincerity and dynamism, against the backdrop of moves in some countries (notably Uganda and Spain) to roll back sexual and reproductive rights.

A number of older officials reiterated legitimate concerns about the effects of colonialism, global inequities, the exporting of talent and the “taking” of natural resources from developing countries.

The young parliamentarians, while sharing these worries, expressed more interest in tangible rights for women, girls and young people.

Jamaican opposition senator Kamina Johnson Smith, 41, has been instrumental for instance in getting legislation revised to allow teenage mothers to return to school after giving birth, and also in urging political action against the incidents of violence against women on the island.

Ulrika Karlsson, also 41, is a Swedish MP who chairs the Swedish Parliamentary Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Intergroup. She said that parliamentarians “must fight for laws, for funding and for real support for those who need it the most.”

“As parliamentarians, as lawmakers, we have the power to bring change. And now is the time for action,” Karlsson said.

But it’s not only parliamentarians who can affect policy. Young activists at the Stockholm conference also made their voices heard in discussions on youth and rights.

Asel Kubanychbekova, 18, has been acting as an “agent of change” since she was 15 in Kyrgyzstan, while 29-year-old South Africa-based activist Remmy Shawa is the Africa regional coordinator for MenEngage, a global network of NGOs and UN partners working to engage men and boys in gender equality.

“I’m so glad that a number of MPs (at the conference) are actually young,” Shawa told IPS. “It shows that we’re finally at the table. But at the country level, the challenge now is to have a very clear, well-defined way in which young people can get to be at the centre of the development agenda.”

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