Why youth leaving care should be on the global agenda

Young men at the Sisli Vocational School in Istanbul, Turkey. On World Youth Day, Almandima Guma of SOS Children's Villages calls on decision makers to open themselves to youth participation. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

For most young people today, the transition to adulthood is marked by three important stages: entering and completing education, quality accommodation and satisfying employment and, lastly, health and a positive sense of well-being. 

Achieving these stages is important for all young people, however, due to economic and social factors, not all young people are able to achieve them.

The youth in the most disenfranchised, excluded and marginalized groups globally are expected to start living independently at a very early age, considerably younger than their peers who grew up in the care of their families of origin. Many lack social and psychological coping strategies, and the adequate skills to keep or find employment and lack supportive networks in their communities. 

On World Youth Day, it’s time to call attention to SOS Children’s Villages ongoing global campaign to put young people leaving care where they deserve — included in the global development agenda.

More holistic, inclusive policies

The I Matter Campaign seeks to empower young people leaving care to critically examine economic and social policies and create a set of recommendations on how these policies must reflect the needs and realities of young people leaving care. 

As a result, participating young people have become more socially and politically aware. One of the overarching criticisms coming from the campaign is that economic and social policies are not holistic enough and don’t incorporate the needs of vulnerable groups of young people, therefore compounding further their social exclusion. 

The research clearly recommends to decision makers and other stakeholders that an inclusive and holistic policy approach to vulnerable young people can only be achieved through their active and meaningful participation in decision-making processes. 

Allowing for the active role of vulnerable young people, as experts in their own right, in decision making process ensures that policies are responsive to needs and not reactionary to crises. 

Opening the eyes of decision makers to youth needs

Now more than ever, effective policies to address the needs of young people must be developed, there can be no more second guessing. 

The first step to ensure this paradigm shift from ineffective to effective youth policy is through the inclusive involvement of young people. Decision makers need to consider some key questions which will set the nature of youth involvement to be achieved.

How do we change the lack of a participation culture in the adult environment? How do we avoid clichés about participation and start the change ourselves. Are we ready to change our adult point of view that we know what is best for young people? Are we ready to be open and support the independent ideas and expressions of young people? How do we create and support awareness to prepare adults and particularly stakeholders to respond to youth participation and take it seriously?

Decision makers need to be open, and to open themselves, to youth participation. 

Creating an equal platform which allows the categorical voice of young people to be heard requires a paradigm shift in political and institutional perceptions of young people and their opinions.

What efforts do we make to avoid involving only the most talented, articulated and intelligent young people? Participation is about creating opportunities for all young people — how do we ensure that all young people are involved, particularly the most excluded? Capturing the categorical voice of young people is vitally important to guarantee that the process of youth participation is an equal process. Ensuring the inclusion of all young people allows for policy to be responsive to the needs of all, as well as, promoting equality among different youth groups.

What kind of power do we give to young people? How to avoid symbolic roles and to avoid young people being perceived by stakeholders as non-opinionated? “Tokenism” is not youth participation. Young people, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, need to be assured that their opinion matters and that every opportunity is afforded to them to voice their opinion. The power to change societies for the better rests in giving an equal voice to all its members, particularly its most vulnerable.

Do we set the right goals of participation together with young people? Or paradoxically, do we limit ourselves in setting up some “menial goals” and not move beyond praising them for their symbolic participation (such as a speech at a conference) or instead, do we actually drive them toward meaningful change and insist that their demands to be taken seriously by adults? The goals of participation have to include the needs of young people and this can only be done through equal partnership. Tokenistic goal setting results only in further disempowering young people and creating distrust between them and decision makers.

How to balance power through their involvement? Do we corrupt the process by supporting them toward isolated youth lead initiatives and interactions only among their peers, or, do we develop a process that would allow generational cooperation and communication among adults and young people toward  common goals for policy and practice change? Intergenerational dialogue is good for society in so many ways, not lest because it allows for greater cohesion and understanding between the different demographic groups. However, one group can not be given more influence than another, and power in making decisions has to be shared. 

Decision makers need to create a space to allow the involvement of young people in decision making processes. 

The future is unwritten 

The future of young people leaving care is not set in stone, but action needs to be undertaken by decision makers and other stakeholders now. 

Meaningful participation of young people leaving care ensures that actions are holistic, targeted and effective. 

Globally, youth issues have to be addressed in the same way, young people need to be involved and allowed to voice their opinions and their recommendations as equal partners in an equal process. 

Youth participation is the first step to meaningfully involving young people in the development debate and without this first step effective and long lasting change for all young people can not and will not be achieved.

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About the author

  • Almandina Guma

    Almandina Guma is advocacy advisor for SOS Children's Villages International in the Baltic region. Before joining the organization, she worked as a child psychologist in her native Tirana, Albania. Guma is now involved with supporting local partners in planning and monitoring of advocacy work linked to child and youth participation.