By Cecilia Russell
JOHANNESBURG, Mar 8 2023 (IPS)
With more than 600 million youth aged between 18 and 24 in the Asia and Pacific region, putting their issues front and center is crucial. Speakers at a recent forum, Youth Empowerment: Education, Employment and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, held in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, agreed that policy development and implementation should be youth-centered.
Professor Keizo Takemi, MP (Japan) and Chair of the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD), reminded parliamentarians of the work ahead when he noted in his opening address that while youth were “innovative thanks to global digitalization, half are unemployed or underemployed. Therefore parliamentarians have a vital role to play.”
The extent of the challenges emerged during the discussions. Raoul Danniel A Manuel, MP Philippines, said teenage pregnancy was higher in rural areas than urban, and there was also an education differential.
“The rate is 32 percent among teenagers without education, 14% among teenagers with primary education, and 5% among teenagers with a secondary education,” Manuel said, noting that the Philippines was the only country in Southeast Asia where the teenage pregnancy rate is increasing in girls aged 10 to 14.
“It is important to raise awareness among young people so that they know how to take care of themselves before they marry. We also need to continue to strengthen services, especially user-friendly services, by focusing on vulnerable groups and young women who do not go to school because this group is at a very high risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy can be risky.”
Lisa Chesters, MP (Australia), reminded conference delegates that “comprehensive sexual education has a positive impact on young people. It has been credited with delaying sexual debut can reduce unwanted pregnancies and STDs.”
Benefits included preventing intimate partner violence, developing healthy relationships, and preventing sexual abuse.
Australia learned after an online petition went viral in 2021 the extent to which students had been subjected to sexual harassment at schools. Following this, ministers for education throughout the country agreed on sexual education at school.
Chesters said it was crucial to include comprehensive, well-planned engagement of young people at the center of any advertising and social media campaigns.
The discussion also centered around employment. Felix Weidenkaff, the Youth Employment Expert for the ILO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, told the conference that while digitalization was a key strategy to increase youth employment, it wasn’t a one-off. Aspects lawmakers should consider would include TVET and skill development (including understanding the needs of those with disability), infrastructure, connectivity, and equipment to create an inclusive system.
Sophea Khun, Country Program Coordinator of UN Women, said changing gender norms required comprehensive and sustained strategies that engage multiple stakeholders at all levels: households, communities, institutions, and governments.
Girls and young women needed to be given the opportunity for training in STEM (science, technology, and mathematics) to close the digital divide.
“In addition, harmful social norms that contribute to controlling women and girls’ access to communications and technology also need to be tackled,” Khun said.
Hun Many, MP (Cambodia) and Chair of the Commission, reiterated in his closing remarks that to create a more elaborate and innovative policy, “youth need to be able to be part of the decision-making process and the discussions.”
Ahead of the conference, IPS interviewed Cambodian MP Lork Kheng, chair of the commission on public health, social works, vocational training, and women’s affairs. Here are excerpts from the interview.
IPS: A tremendous amount of work is to be done to improve SRHR for all and youth-friendly services. How can young MPs play an enhanced role in developing policy, ensuring services are adequately financed and delivered to the communities where required?
LK: With regards to the role of Parliament, we can oversee the implementation of policies related to education, the provision of safe counseling on sexual and reproductive health, family planning, abortion, HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and local monitoring of child marriages, which are challenges for our Asia-Pacific region. In addition, the National Assembly always provides opportunities for development partners to contribute ideas and proposals for consideration through close cooperation in organizing educational forums and disseminating discussions and exchanges at national and sub-national levels (in their constituencies). We can establish effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and coverage of the actual implementation of practitioners and service providers and the effectiveness of policies to ensure that they are providing the anticipated outcomes. Working with think tanks and civil society organizations to conduct research, assessment, and evaluation that informs policymaking and improves service delivery from all stakeholders’ perspectives.
Another important role is to communicate directly with the people and sub-national authorities in the constituencies where they are based. Young MPs and MPs often use the forum to meet and visit local administrations, etc., to mainstream the information and raise awareness of the importance of youth and family life planning, as well as to share good local and global political experiences and best practices that can be implemented within the existing framework of national and sub-national policies to stakeholders, especially local authorities who work directly with the youth.
In particular, in overseeing the financing, every year, MPs actively participate in the discussion of the draft budget law, in which the whole House closely monitors the progress and changes in the budget allocation according to each program. Furthermore, MPs also provide feedback to the executive branch during the initial consultation phase until the full house passes the draft budget. In this regard, the review of budget allocations for youth health care, such as increased attention to the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, tobacco control, food safety and diet in general, and sexual issues in particular, has been addressed frequently and has been noted and considered by the relevant ministries as well as the Government.
The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has prioritized students who pass the upper secondary national examination with good grades to study digital skills with the support of a student loan that must be repaid when they get a job. This is to strengthen human resources with digital capabilities.
IPS: While Asia and the Pacific are home to more than 60% of the world’s youth aged between 15 and 24, the COVID-19 pandemic acted to disadvantage youth in poorer and rural communities, especially where schooling was interrupted, and children did not have access to the technologies for remote learning. How can youth MPs ensure that those children (who may even now be young adults) are given the opportunities to complete their education? Secondly, how should policy, infrastructure, and finance be directed at children still disadvantaged by a lack of technology?
LK: We all truly recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary challenge that has plagued all socio-economic sectors, requiring the Government and authorities to respond with unusual means in these difficult circumstances. In developing countries like Cambodia, when schools were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its early stages, we did not have the right digital infrastructure for teaching and learning. Students in rural areas and those considered to be disadvantaged groups were the ones who faced barriers to accessing education at that stage. But if we look at the immediate solution of the Head of the Royal Government of Cambodia, we can measure the outcome of solving the challenges with this decision. The Government quickly rolled out vaccinations, especially prioritizing vaccinations for front-line medical workers and educators. That ensured that these two environments gained immunity as soon as possible so that students could return to class quickly with a high sense of security.
IPS: Youth are considered a vital resource for the country’s economic development, but they face high unemployment. What are young MPs working on to ensure that youth can get decent jobs and support young entrepreneurs? What are the policy directions needed to foster youth employment?
LK: Specifically in Cambodia, the unemployment rate for youth may be slightly lower than 14 percent. Nevertheless, youth are also facing other major challenges, such as skill mismatches with the job markets and vulnerabilities of international labor migration, which are the major concerns of the Parliament and the Government. As Cambodia is riding high on development in all areas, the labor market has expanded, especially in areas that benefit youth. In response to such demands, the Government has paid close attention to education and vocational training by prioritizing promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to encourage young people to acquire high-demand skills.
In this new academic year, the Government has encouraged youth to pursue vocational skills at the primary and secondary levels by giving monthly allowance to approximately 1.5 million students, in addition to their free tuition.
To support the promotion of young entrepreneurship, we have also established a number of mechanisms – both under state supervision and public-private partnerships – that have created entrepreneurship and incubation centers. In particular, during the COVID-19 pandemic, these mechanisms also played an important role in providing much-needed assistance to those businesses through loans and free training to the entrepreneurs so that they could utilize the technology for their businesses against the backdrop of a changing lifestyle in the new normal.
Note: Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD), Asian Population and Development Association (APDA), and the Japan Trust Fund supported the hybrid conference.
IPS UN Bureau Report