Civil society and governments all over the world are pondering over how to engage youth as positive agents of change. The energy of youth can be harnessed for constructive steps towards positive change, but at times it can also be violent, impressionable and even extremist. Here, Paula Williamson looks at two snapshots of different forms of youth activism in Bangladesh.
Democracy comes in a kaleidoscope of forms within which youth are playing innovative and diverse roles. The importance of engaging youth in democracy has long been touted, from the UN Youth events to the recent allowing of 16 year olds to vote in the Scottish referendum. There is much talk of the lack of voting turnout in the UK particularly amongst young people. But is a focus on voting taking precedence over other, more important areas?
The concept of student protest and youth as forces for change is deeply rooted in Bangladesh’s self-identity. The seeds for the 1971 liberation war, from which the nation of Bangladesh was born, came from student demonstrations. The student leaders of that era would then go on to become the political leaders of an independent Bangladesh.
Today, however, students and youth also play a well-publicised role in the darker side of politics in Bangladesh. Student political activism can verge on the militant and press coverage of student political factions battling with hockey sticks and knives, sometimes even guns and incendiary bombs, is not uncommon.
It is a poorly kept secret that this violence is condoned and even financed by Bangladesh’s main political parties. The parties fund strong student wings and political partisanship in state universities can be pervasive, from the student unions even down to the allocation of dormitory beds. In public discourse students are depicted as political “muscle” or the foot soldiers for the political parties.
Some of the reasons touted for why students engage in violent politics range from privileged access to political party funded facilities, such as better dormitory rooms, feeling connected to a nation-wide cause, as well as the belief that violence maybe justified in engendering change.
|“Volunteering is a tradition and in alienable part of Bangladesh people because they have deep feelings for helping others.”(Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2010)|
In stark contrast to the self-interested rioting in some universities, many youth club members have a strong sense of social responsibility and community awareness.
Young Star youth club members Ripon Chakma, Milon Chakma, and Bidorshan Chakma were active in running a Right to Information support service for their community. In 2011, market sellers in their Khagrachuri district were suffering from illegal levies. Milon Chakma led an investigation through Right to Information and he and his fellow youth club members posted their findings in public places throughout their district.
With access to accurate information on their legal rights, market sellers were empowered to start resisting illegal levies. Another example of the service provided by Milon Chakma and fellow Young Star Club volunteers was a Right to Information investigation into what medicines the local hospital is legally obliged to provide for free. The health sector is known for being a corrupt public body in Bangladesh and community members were unwilling to seek medical treatment as the local hospital was frequently charging patients for drugs they should receive for free. Young Star club found 77 drugs that should be free and distributed the list to community members.
Through such initiatives, youth club members are helping to empower community members to hold government authorities to account. The public sector in Bangladesh has a reputation for poor quality service and lack of transparency; however many of these youth club members are trying to challenge this status quo with democratic tools.
It is also worth pointing out that the Chittagong Hill Tract’s indigenous communities that Ripon and Bidorshan are from have ongoing tensions with Bangladeshi authorities over indigenous rights. Research shows that youth often turn to violence when they feel discriminated against. The fact that these youth club members are demanding their rights through peaceful methods is exemplary as a constructive alternative to violence when pursuing change.
Lessons for engaging young people
Research by Mercy Corps in Somaliland, suggests that economic engagement and increasing young people’s voices is not enough to deter them from political violence. Instead, youth development projects need to offer peaceful avenues through which youth can see measurable change (MercyCorps, 2013).
Bangladesh’s youth club members are examples of how youth can be pioneering members of society and positive agents for change. This article has also depicted violent student politics in Bangladesh as an example of how youth can be vulnerable to exploitation from political groups. These dual forms of politically and socially conscious youth can be found throughout the world. There is scope for further exploration of where and how positive forms of youth activism can be promoted as a viable alternative to violent activism.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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