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Youth drives change | UNFPA holds special consultation with youth at Rajshahi University

17 July 2019

Young people are the torch-bearers for the future. Championing their rights, meeting their needs and creating an enabling environment for them are critical to an inclusive and prosperous Bangladesh, given that they make up almost one-third of the country’s population.

The remarkable transition in the working-age population – from 49% in 1991 to 58% in 2017- has provided Bangladesh with a demographic window of opportunity. If good investments are made in education, health, employment and skills development opportunities for this population, the country has the potential to reap an extraordinary demographic dividend. 

The landmark ICPD Programme of Action recognizes the centrality of youth empowerment to sustainable development. Bangladesh has made impressive progress on a range of indicators relevant to meeting ICPD’s goals, including education, especially of girls; investments in the working-age population; and child mortality. 

For Bangladesh, new challenges are emerging in connection with this  window of opportunity. Notably, the unemployment rate has nearly doubled among youth aged 15–29 years in the past 25 years, rising from 6% in 1994 to 11% in 2017. Challenges persist in terms of empowering youth socially and economically. Eliminating child marriage, reducing the high adolescent fertility rate (31% in 2018), ensuring completion of secondary school education, and creating more employment and skill development opportunities for youth are among the key issues Bangladesh needs to focus on to maintain its upward trajectory in achieving the ICPD agenda.  

To renew and revitalize action to fully realize the ICPD agenda on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, this year’s World Population Day has been observed with the theme “25 Years of the ICPD: Accelerating the Promise.”      

UNFPA Bangladesh has used the occasion to reach out to youth from Rajshahi University, and listen to their views, challenges and vision for Bangladesh through a special youth engagement and consultation session. 
 
Young students from different academic streams and backgrounds voluntarily participated in the interactive session and voiced their concerns and dreams for the future. Dr. Asa Torkelsson, UNFPA Representative in Bangladesh, interacted with the students and listened to their stories.  

 
“Our role as an active social agent is frequently overlooked or even ignored. It is either our parents, or teachers or the ever-present ‘society’ that calls the shots for us,” noted participant Sanzida*. Hailing from rural Bangladesh, Sanzida grew up in an environment where young people, especially girls, are often undermined. “Because they claim we aren’t old enough to make choices and decisions for ourselves – even when it involves our own bodies and lives – they impose whatever they think is right on us,” she added. 

“If we are the future of this country, then society needs to treat us accordingly. We need to be recognized for who we are. To contribute to the future of Bangladesh, we need the power to make decisions for ourselves; to practice our rights and to take control of our bodies.” 

According to the participants, families, communities and leaders all need to understand youth’s sexual and reproductive health issues, so they can better appreciate and address them. 

“Whatever I learned about my body and reproductive rights came from unreliable informal sources, much of which was later proved to be misinformation or misinterpretation of facts,” Rakin* pointed out.  

“To make informed choices and decisions, we need access to sexual reproductive health information and services at an early age.”  

Gender inequality and violence against women and girls was a dominant theme of the session. Many of the female youth participants referred to their high vulnerability to violence – and their consequent fear and oppression.  

“I live in a constant state of fear due to my gender identity. Be it at home or outdoors, there is just no sense of security for women and girls. This plays a big role in confining us in the household.”  

When asked about their aspirations and future prospects, many said they see their future as bleak and barren, with limited opportunities for employment and skills development. Almost all observed that the country’s socioeconomic conditions are not conducive for youth to fully realize their collective and individual agency. 
 
In order to achieve their full potential and contribute to Bangladesh’s social and economic development, the youth participants called on all stakeholders to ensure their access to education, decent work, and health services, including reproductive health services. 

“Our voices need to be heard in policy formulation and in designing the future for our country.”  

They further called on the Bangladesh Government and its partners to continue implementing the ICPD Programme of Action – for young people in particular, who are disproportionately affected by sexual and reproductive health issues. 

The youth engagement and consultation session was organized as part of the Conference on Population and Sustainable Development: Issues and Challenges in Bangladesh, convened by the Department of Population Science and Human Resource Development of Rajshahi University. It was  part of a broader series of discussions organized by UNFPA Bangladesh in the run-up to the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 in November 2019. The consultation process provided space for UNFPA and youth to have candid conversations and find solutions to address the realities facing them. In all, more than 300 youth from different regions of the country participated in the session. 
 
*Not their real names