Young people campaign for political change in the world

Young people have participated in a remarkable political mobilization over the past year. They participated in global climate change strikes and demonstrations and protests against ruling elites, corruption and inequality in countries such as Algeria, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq and Libya.

However, my research shows that they can be excluded from decision-making and peacebuilding processes. In particular, young people frequently feel that their messages are devalued or ignored.

Young people are often seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. However, they can simultaneously be considered dangerous, violent and uncontrollable. These views have long dominated attitudes towards young people. In addition, popular beliefs about the inexperience and political apathy of young people have caused many people to ignore their contribution to political debate. It has also led to a failure of political leaders to recognize the potential of young people to bring about political change.

A flexible understanding of what counts as “youth” means that a person can also be subject to these attitudes for a surprisingly long period of time. The definition of youth revolves around age, social and cultural roles or psychological factors. While the United Nations defines young people as individuals aged 15 and 24, this range varies elsewhere.

It rises, for example, to 35 in Cyprus, according to the Cyprus National Youth Strategy. An unemployed, single, 40-year-old West African man can still be considered a “young”.

Voices excluded

During my fieldwork in Cyprus, I observed what is called “adult territoriality, In which politics is mostly dominated by older men, and they do not allow young people to participate in any type of government body. As a young Cypriot told me, “political parties are reluctant to encourage young candidates in politics, nor do they intend to open doors for young people”. This prevents young people from being included in politics, decision-making or peacebuilding.

Cyprus Political Division.
Volina / Shutterstock

“Maybe it’s because of the Mediterranean culture, but the elders don’t listen to you until your hair turns gray,” commented a 28-year-old Turkish Cypriot. “It’s deeply rooted in Cypriot culture that if you are a young person, you [have] no experience to listen to, ”said a 27-year-old Greek Cypriot.

Cyprus is not alone in this regard. Youth-led protests are often criticized, such as calls for young climate activist Greta Thunberg to “Shut up and go back to school”. And sometimes, young activists are more directly sidelined: Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped from an Associated Press photograph after a press conference at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos. The marginalization of young activists of color has also been a persistent trend.

Change agents

In recent years, the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), 2250 (2015) and 2419 (2018), on “Youth, Peace and Security” marked an attempt to change these attitudes. They recognize the important and positive roles that young people often play. UNSCR 2250 identified five pillars – participation, protection, prevention, partnership and disengagement and reintegration – to enable youth participation, especially in peace processes.

Yet, there is still work to be done to effectively integrate the voices of young people. young people have the potential contribute positively to their societies – not only for peace and security, but also for Sustainable development – if they are recognized as political actors.

In the case of Cyprus, the UN Secretary General constantly called on the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to involve women and young people in peace processes. This could be either by strengthening the role of women’s organizations and youth participation in the peace process, or by ensuring them a meaningful role in peace efforts. However, the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities remain reluctant to include the General public.

Peace Bench on Ledras Street, Nicosia, Cyprus.
Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

Most young Cypriots are used to living in a divided country. However, some wish to see the division end and seek to contribute significantly to dialogue and cooperation between the two sides.

In my research, I sought to understand the views of these young people on daily peace. When I asked my participants what peace meant to them, most of them emphasized the need for peace at the societal level rather than a government-led solution – with particular emphasis on daily practical aspects. These include things like traveling to either side without any checkpoints, or using their cell phones at no additional cost.

Cypriot youth may not be as politically active for peace as they were in the run-up to the 2004 referendum on the Annan plan, or the period in 2011 when there was a movement to occupy the buffer zone between north and south, and when the young involved in demonstrations for peace. But the young people of the island still believe that they have a responsibility to find a peaceful solution to the “Cyprus problem”.

Although countries are reluctant to include young people in politics, young people find alternatives to face marginalization and make their voices heard. This is evident in the protests led by young people around the world. Young people today demand to be leaders, rather than wait their turn in an elusive future.

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