Help me to create a picture. If I ask where you would picture yourself in 15 years what would be your answer? If this was a question posed at typical Sri Lankan youth, I’ll get a mix of answers ranging from successful careers, happy families, stable employment, job satisfaction and recognition, safe homes and as the local colloquial phrase goes “shape eke inna”. Now that we have a picture in mind, let’s stop and think for a moment whether we are heading in the direction of the picture we created or are we stuck in a pot hole with no way out. Let’s say you as the artist who thought of the picture decides to colour it and requires red paint. If red paint is not in your palette what options do you have? Maybe you can substitute brown for red. But then will the picture be the same as the one you dreamt of? I asked you to picture your dream but I have not given you the right colours.
In a world where everything is changing and where life itself is a race, the cries of youth have been subdued for so long and has not been given due priority. This has been the status-quo to which most of us were born to. But this is now changing and Sri Lanka is certainly moving towards this change.
Understanding the need for the voice of youth in Sri Lanka, the national youth policy, the first of its kind was published and circulated in February 2014. The three pillars stated in this policy statement essentially directs the minds and thoughts of all Sri Lankans. Ensuring youth, enabling youth and empowering youth should indeed be a manthra that is uttered and put to practice at all forms of governance in our country. It is an ideal platform for Sri Lanka as it looks towards the post 2015 era in creating a nation that falls in line with theme of the Development Agenda of the UN titled “the World We Want”.
Let me now take you back to 2009. It was an era where us Sri Lankans first started tasting the freedom and the calmness of life after a protracted armed conflict. I was a part of a group that visited Menik Farm, a welfare centre in the Northern region of the country for a youth outreach programme. During the programme I was partnered with Nishanthan a Tamil boy of 16 who was displaced from his home in Mullaitvu and now temporarily sheltered at the welfare centre. During the sessions, he kept badgering me for answers for a continuous stream of questions using the little English words he knew. One such question was what I wanted to be in the future. Using the limited Tamil words I knew coupled with English I explained to him that I wanted to be a diplomat. His eyes widened at my reply and he asked looking quite alarmed ” You’re a girl! Can girls be diplomats? Don’t you have to go to university to be a diplomat? and then in a more solemn tone ” can I also be a diplomat? Will I be allowed to have the same opportunities as you do? How can I get help to achieve my dreams? ” Back then these were mere questions and I didn’t even have proper answers. But this was the hopeful voice and also the anxieties of the youth of Sri Lanka back then.
These are the issues that are addressed through the youth policy and that are converted into targets and goals of post-2015 Sri Lanka. Nishanthan has certainly been heard. For so long Sri Lanka and the world at large viewed youth as a “problem” or an “issue” that needs to be fixed. The national youth policy removes this stereotyping and views these individuals as the potential and the driving force of the country.
The foundation of every country is the education of its youth. Sri Lanka realizing this has done well in providing universal access to basic education and has achieved 92.5% average literacy amongst her population. However an issue that currently needs to be addressed in the country is the quality of the education provided and whether it ensures Sri Lankan youth the foundation to become a global citizen. The need for vocational training and skills development has also been identified by the Government and the establishment of various vocational training centres in the country is a welcomed response. The proposed increment in Government allocation towards higher education up to 6% of GDP will certainly be a boost and would assist in creating Sri Lankans fit for the global challenges.
Youth employment still remains an issue in Sri Lanka with unemployment rates being 21.5% among 15-19year olds in 2014 and 20% in the 20-24 age group. The issue of employment is related to the challenges faced with regard to quality of education in the country which reinforces this fact.
Health and Well-being
Health and well-being among the youth is considered to be vital in the formation of healthy and productive individuals in the future. Having understood this, the government of Sri Lanka has taken steps in combating the challenges it faces in this aspect and the free health policy of the country certainly cements the Government’s endaveour in creating a healthy youth population.
Another important aspect that is discussed is youth-inclusive development. Sri Lanka, now, has a well-established institutional framework that can positively address the post 2015 development goals. The Youth Parliament has entered its second term and the membership of the National Youth Council shows an increasing trend. Youth Parliament is a very significant achievement in the government’s efforts to give youth an opportunity to take part in the policy formulation of the country.
These are some of the issues that are addressed even in the Colombo Declaration, the outcome document of the World Conference on Youth 2014 which is scheduled to be discussed at the General Assembly and that needs to be dealt with as a priority among member nations . These are not “mere” issues that need to be handled but issues that need to be handled NOW. This means that even though the future does belong to the youth, they are also the present. There are 1.8 billion of us globally and 4.4 million of individuals like me and Nishanthan living among you. We need to be heard and understood. If not now, then when? Now is the time for bold measures. This is the beginning, and we are the generation.
About the Author
Dushanthi Weerasekera – I am an Undergraduate reading for her B.B.A. specializing in Business Economics at the University of Colombo while reading for my LLB in the second year with the University of London International Programmes. I am a CIMA Passed Finalist and a volunteer in various Charity Youth Specialized Organizations. I completed the Diploma in Diplomacy and International Relations at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) in 2013 and was awarded the Dr. Vernon L. B. Mendis Memorial Award awarded for being First in the order of Merit.
Through my various associations with diverse fields I bring to the table a wholesome view on issues but specially interested in the state of Sri Lankan Youth and what needs to be done in creating a world fit for tomorrow’s leaders of Sri Lanka.