High school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university.   Photo: Roni Bintang, Reuters
High school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Roni Bintang, Reuters

The United Nations categorizes young people as those between 10 and 24 years of age. In Indonesia, Law 40 of 2009 categorizes young people as 16-30 years old. Youth participation is a right protected by the law according to Chapter III on the function, direction and strategy for youth services of Law No 40. Article 7 mentions increased participation and an active role for youth in developing themselves, society, and the nation.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, youth participation is important because it draws upon their expertise, enables them to exercise their rights as citizens, and contributes to a more democratic society. Such participation also promotes young people’s personal development and provides them with substantive knowledge of practical skills.

Participation is a basic right for young people, but questions do arise about how it can be implemented. What is inclusive youth participation, who are the participants, what do they do, and with what outcomes? When we say “youth meaningfully participate”, are we talking about “youth-led activity”, “civic engagement”, or simply having young people around the table?

Young people’s participation is a precondition for sustainable development. Young people are a diverse group of the Indonesian population aged 10-24; some are in school, some are living with HIV, some are persons with disabilities, migrants, drug users, and persons of diverse sexual orientation. Some young people are living in poverty, conflict, and emergency situations; some are young parents or are pregnant.

The situation for young people in Indonesia is as challenging, complex and promising as that of the nation itself. Although some countries in the Asia-Pacific region have shrinking populations of young people, Indonesia has a large and rapidly growing youth population. Today, about 26% of the population in Indonesia is under the age of 35. The rising numbers of young people, accompanied by falling fertility rates, offers a critical window of development opportunity – the demographic dividend.

Yet too many young people are unable to participate fully in society. Youth participation is one of the main governance challenges in Indonesia. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, participation is a fundamental right that needs to be ensured without discrimination of age, gender, ethnicity, race, religion or other identities. We can no longer deny that the future of Indonesia, especially in development, both depends on and will affect youth.

Young people have a unique understanding of their situation and are social actors with skills that can bring about constructive resolutions to their problems. Experience shows that development programs, including youth programs, are more effective when young people are treated as partners. Young people have a right to participate in programs that affect them.

Participation and inclusion

Inclusive youth participation is a major condition of ownership for the socio-economic transformation of Indonesia. Inclusive participation should ideally provide equal chances for all stakeholders to participate. With the growing number and diversity of youth, they should be considered key stakeholders, and thus it is important to engage with youth in the development process.

There is a clear need to reinforce youth participation in development and further think of new tools that can improve the involvement of this major category of the population. In fact, the problem of youth participation raises some fundamental questions that need to be reviewed by all stakeholders involved in development activities in Indonesia. What is the missing link to resolving the problem of inclusive participation of youth in Indonesia? How do we provide the education, health, skills, leadership training? How can we combat the challenge of unemployment and resources to finance action plans?

The answer to many of these questions is certainly through the promotion and strengthening of inclusive, just and equitable developmental governance and through providing opportunities for youth groups to join the development discussion. The implementation of national policies and programs adapted to this purpose must be monitored and evaluated by a particular mechanism that includes young people at the table.

Inclusive participation also means that the participation process will include, and be accessible to, youth from various backgrounds. As leaders, young people have the power to shape the future they want and express their views and opinions toward their country’s development.

Various stakeholders, such as government, civil society, and the private sector should encourage the leadership of young people through enabling youth-initiated and directed intervention. This mechanism could be established by opening up a space for youth-led decision-making within existing structures, system and processes. One of the real examples is to involve young people in the development of national strategy, and mainstreaming young people within national planning.

Issues facing youth

There are many factors affecting the level of participation by young people such as limited access to education and health care, which is the result of issues with availability, fees, and quality of education and health services. On the other hand, there are also factors of poverty, social custom, religious and cultural behavior, and willingness of adults to provide them the space to participate.

Education is one of the main tools for helping youth transition into adulthood, since it is one of the main factors to provide them with decent jobs. However, 19.6% of Indonesians aged 15-24 are unemployed, which is five times the adult unemployment rate. Both rural and urban areas have the same youth unemployment rate. There is also a special need to pay more attention to young people with disabilities. According to the Indonesian Journal of Disability Studies 2014, published by Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, only 50% of young people with disabilities finish elementary school and only 47% continue on to senior high school. Sadly, only 3% of young people with disabilities go on to study at university.

Youth unemployment is also a serious reality faced by young people in Indonesia. Young women are more likely to be unemployed than young men, which is shown by the figures from 2011, when 21% of young women were unemployed compared with 19% of young men. One way of addressing the youth unemployment rate is to refocus education. Education should not be limited to academic activities, but other  activities such as entrepreneurship, volunteering experience, and other soft skills should be taught, as this would provide more opportunities for youth to gain work experience. Special attention also needs to be paid to young people with disabilities, since they have an even greater challenge in the job market.

Health plays a very important role in determining the well-being of young people. Again, youth who live in poverty are more vulnerable because of the limited access to health services. Such services should be accessible, which means that they need to be youth-friendly in terms of treatment, location, and operating times.

Health services also need to include reproductive services. Every year, there are about 16 million births among adolescent girls, accounting for 11% of all births worldwide. Pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death among women aged 15 to 19. Globally, 41% of unsafe abortions occur among women aged 15–24. Girls with no education are three times as likely to marry before the age of 18 than those with secondary or higher education. The percentage of women aged 15 to 19 years who begin childbearing increased from 9% in 2007 to 10% in 2012.

Marriage at a young age is still relatively common in Indonesia, especially in rural and slum areas. Studies show that few adolescents know about the human reproductive process or about HIV/AIDS prevention. There have also been continuous debates about the need for comprehensive sex education.

Youth participation is a process of involving young people in the policies and decisions that affect their lives. But many young people are minimally involved, or not involved at all, in public affairs. And yet, on the other hand, some small groups of people are extremely active. Programs and policies must take this into account and be shaped to the needs of various groups in various levels of participation.

Youth participation in politics is a good example of this premise. Politics has become the most efficient tool in involving young people in the decision-making process. However, young people need to be provided with chances to get to know their rights in the political process, including their right to vote and their right to participate in the parliamentary procedure.

The Indonesian presidential election in 2014 showed the great power held by young people in shaping their decisions on how the nation’s development should proceed. During the election, young people participated meaningfully through definite action and social media to shape their decisions and inform their choices and ideas. However, lower-income youth participated less than their better-off counterparts, since taking part in discussions on social media requires an advanced technological device.

Way forward

Young people need to be co-owners of the future; they are the leaders and innovators today and in the future. To optimize the role of young people and to ensure their leadership, space to participate and investment must be given to them.

Investing in young people and providing them with opportunity, education, life skills and health services, including sexual and reproductive health information and services, will help foster their leadership in the community. Doing this will not only save lives and empower young people, but it can also lead to significant economic gains for the young people themselves, their families, and the nation. Such investments have also been shown to reduce health-care costs, improve productivity, and increase rates of education, which lead to greater economic growth.

Ensuring meaningful participation of young people in decision-making processes will help them become leaders and innovators. Participation of young people is critical to ensure that policies and programs meet their needs.

Government and development and civil-society partners must also enable young people’s participation in the development of national health, education, and poverty-reduction policies and programs. This requires greater involvement and investment in leadership skills among diverse young people to participate meaningfully in advocacy and decision-making processes at the community, national and international levels. This means active engagement and real influence by young people, not just their passive presence or token roles in adult agencies.

Policies that affect the whole community and specifically young people benefit from youth participation. Young people are valuable members of the community and have a wide range of experiences, viewpoints and ideas to contribute alongside other citizens. Including young people in the public decision-making processes will ensure that national policies and local services are best configured to meet their needs.

Inclusive participation will not see young people as an object or target, but as a mutual partnership in development. It also means that the participation process will include access by young people from various backgrounds.

Angga D. Martha

Angga D. Martha is a Youth and SDGs advocate and a recent graduate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, focusing on Human Security, Sustainable Development, and International Negotiation and Conflict Resolutions. He is also the Global Focal Point on Oceans/SDG 14 at the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, and a Youth Action Team at CIVICUS. He holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Indonesia, focusing on Youth Policy in Southeast Asia. He can be reached...