Youth, Which Youth?

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Last year, as the lead consultant for the most extensive and inclusive review of a national youth policy in our history (probably of any policy), we traveled the length and breadth of the country trying to gather the views and inputs of youth leaders in every single chiefdom.

In more than a few communities, we spoke with a well-built man, coarse voice, likely unmarried but with children who would beat his chest and declare “I have been a youth leader in this community for over 20 years”.

I would gently smile and keep the conversation going knowing that even the most extensive official definition of youth by our policies restricts the category to a maximum period of 20 years.

Politicians have created a new category known as the “youth man dem” who are groups of often disgruntled or easily mobilisable males, typically unemployed, often on drugs.

Each political party worth its salt has a significant cohort of this group and some even invest in organising them and providing token “benefits” to keep them content enough to be available for “mobilisation” but not transformed enough to ensure real socio-economic mobility.

That’s just the beginning of the conundrum when it comes to this big, complicated, complex, highly loaded term called Youth.

First, who qualifies as youth and how we define youth has long been a point of debate, controversy, manipulation and fluidity.

Even beyond the Youth man dem”, youth leaders in political parties and activist communities are often male, or masculinised, unemployed and defined by their agitation.

This challenge of essentialising youth is not limited to the political space alone. In the Fullah dialect and many others, they refer to groups of young men in communities as “bandits”, a group to be feared, avoided or warned against.

This view of youth leaders as threats to peace have been dominant, etched in the youth bulge theory by academics but more importantly seeped in the social consciousness of our societies.

Almost all respondents in our consultations referred to youth as a period of transition; a time before someone achieved something; usually marriage, education, property or general responsibility.

Youth in this context is not just a transition period, but also one marked usually by dependence or the lack of something like education, marriage etc. The fluidity of this understanding means that there is a core group of people that can continuously float between being youth and not being, depending on the variables that are applied in a given situation.

A 17 years old who is hungry and dying of disease is a child, when he agitates for his rights, he becomes a youth. If on the other hand he commits crimes like rape, or gets married, he is practically treated as an adult.

So the same person in our society can be a child, a youth and an adult – depending on the context. In my own experience, when we graduated from university in our early twenties and lived in our parent’s homes, we were youth.

When I got my first job and bought a car at around age 23, the youth man dem in my area now elevated my category- I was now bra and they were my “borbor dem” (insert more details here based on response).

As Marc Sommers points out, one of the implications of this confusion surrounding the definition of youth is that “youth lack specified rights in part because is not entirely clear who they are.”

Another scholar, De Waal has concluded that youth is a “problematic category, an intermediary and ambivalent category, chiefly defined by what is not: youth are not dependent children, but neither are they independent socially responsible adults.”

So you end up with a curious definition of youth as independent, but as yet, incapable of responsibility.

So I was extremely curious, even peeved that the youth we spoke to had no interest in reshaping the official definition of youth. My stated position was that the current category – 15-35 years, was too broad and had outlived its supposed  purpose to the extent that it was now being used to marginalise young people- you still get time, you na youth fors (the youth as not capable of responsibility theory).

Towards the end of the consultation I had some sort of epiphany-youth for many in Sierra Leone is also a period charity – “because you naborbor, you kin still continue to collect.

So many hold on to this desperately because it is often the only means of survival-the only means of access. Youth in this sense represents a quota- in political parties, religious groups, civic and other social groups, people change their ages and hold on to the “youth title” as a way to establish a constituency, some legitmacy and even though tokenistic, but at least some access.

So these views present a conundrum. On the one hand, some young people are desperately trying to graduate from youth, while others are furiously fighting to hold on to the title as a means of survival. On another hand, society sees youth as potential threats, purveyors of violence, while the development community’s mantra is about “empowering and equipping youth for development’.

Political parties need these youth man dem to counter perceived threats from other parties while the various manifestos are essentially committed to ending the “youth man syndrome”.

So here are some fresh ideas on this topic.

A redefinition of youth to be more inclusive and reflective of the internal diversity of young people. Not just in our documents- which we have done with the National Youth Policy- but also in the outlook starting from youth councils, political parties, churches and community groups.

The exclusion of females from this cohort has real consequences- girls have essentially no transition period – you are either a child, or after puberty, marriage or child birth – which happens for too many between 15-22- you are a woman.

The new gender equality bill (as it should be called) could be a step in the right direction but this should be taken across the board. Diversity must also include those in the age bracket who have achieved, married, have children, work in offices.

The branding of youth as a period of lack undermines the constituency.

Lower the outdated youth age in Sierra Leone. We did not succeed to do this in the current youth policy but we included language that laid the foundation for this. The current age keeps the door shut on young leaders until you have graduated while providing, often crumbs.

For a country whose median age is 19.4 years, it is ridiculous that we confine so many opportunities to those who have graduated beyond 35yrs. My recommendation is a progressive reduction in the official designation of youth starting with lowering to 30 in the next review with a goal to ultimately reduce it to age 24.

In fact, 24 year olds are leading the world and that must be our ambition.

Reduce the eligibility for the presidency from 40 to 21. Our current life expectancy at birth is around 55 years. We have one of the youngest and most vibrant populations in Africa with over 60% of our population below the age of 35.

How do we justify keep old people in power and structurally shut the door on young leaders with archaic, colonial age requirements of our highest office. I will take David Sengeh, Francis Kaifala, Yakama Jones, Ndeye Koroma and other young vibrant leaders anyday over the crop of over year olds who have banrkupted our country over the years and paid no attention to the future of our environment.

Changing that will send a message to young people that we value and judge you by the content of your character and your contribution to society, not just by the amount of years you have lived.

Oh finally, implement the youth policy. I wrote it. It is the best and most progressive we have in Sierra Leone yet. And I will argue, in the continent.