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Meeting of Minds: Partnering with Youth

What do most of today’s teenagers want? A faster computer? A cooler wardrobe? A new car?

Consider the fact that nearly 90 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion youth live in developing countries, where opportunity is severely limited. Now think again. What do they want? What do they need?

At ChildFund, it’s our business to find out.

Lately, as an outgrowth of ChildFund’s ongoing service to children throughout all stages of their development, we have delved deeper into working with youth as partners in their own futures.

In April, Jason Schwartzman, ChildFund Team Leader for Child and Youth Development, spent two weeks in India, home to 243 million 15- to 24-year-olds. He participated in part of ChildFund India’s 60th anniversary celebration, which included a gathering of young people from across India. The youth conference presented a perfect opportunity to learn more about their lives. Schwartzman wrote several posts about that experience and much of the groundwork that went into it at ChildFund’s blog.

 RS5016_Abas
 A boy in The Gambia drew this picture of his friend and wrote about how he imagines that friend's life five years from now.

From conversations with youth around the world, he reports, it is clear that they have plenty to say. In an exercise to learn how youth envision their futures, Schwartzman and his team asked young people in several countries to each draw a friend, and then to imagine what that friend’s life might look like in five years.

Some descriptions were sunny, some were bleak, and some were both. One young man in The Gambia wrote of his 13-year-old friend, “In 5 years times, I am seeing my friend as someone who will not prosper in future because he don’t study at home. … I think he may get involve in drug abuse, he can be in jail, or physically weak or die. If he change his mind and study hard, he can be at the University … . He can therefore contribute to the nation development and build up a good family in future.”

Such responses — and they echo each other in many places worldwide — show that youth are keenly aware of the challenges they face. The ability to follow through with their education is topmost in many of their minds, because they understand it is integral to achieving a better life. But, in the countries where ChildFund works, pursuing education is too often at odds with young people’s circumstances.

As Schwartzman heard from the youth gathered in India, poverty tends to prematurely drive young people out of school and into the search for nonexistent employment or, for girls, into early marriage — sometimes far from home. Without family and other support systems, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, especially the girls. The boys worry about that too, but even more so about the trap of alcoholism. “Young people are making choices, sometimes passively and sometimes actively,” writes Schwartzman, “but they are acutely aware that these choices are not leaving them in a good place.” Hope can be as hard to come by as money.

But Schwartzman also saw youth finding ways beyond these challenges and into productive, stable young adulthood. In a remote village in India, he met a group of young women, most of them newly married and entering motherhood, who had formed a co-op to grow and sell mushrooms for income. The “daughter-in-law group,” as he nicknamed them, didn’t just create a livelihood for themselves in their remote India village — they also created a circle of support. They became resources for one another.

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The "daughter-in-laws' group" work together to grow and sell mushrooms for income in small, remote village in India. 

Worldwide, ChildFund is partnering with communities in a variety of ways to address the risks that young people face. In addition to women’s self-help groups, we facilitate youth clubs that provide support and camaraderie as well as opportunities for young people to grow and make a difference in their communities. There are more than a thousand such children’s and youth clubs in India.

What do youth want? What do they need?

A chance.

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