By Tanaya Jagtiani:
In spite of nearly half the world’s population being under 30 years old, two out of three countries do not consult young people when framing national development plans (UN Envoy on Youth).
With an estimated 600 million people below the age of 25, India has the largest youth population in the world. While this rise in the working-age population (15 to 64 years) is expected to generate exponential increases in productivity and economic growth, we need to keep in mind that a demographic transition alone, does not automatically create a productive workforce.
And while India has been pushing youth-targeted programmes (aimed at employment and skilling), young people’s voices have been missing from the discussion. Youth under 18 know what they want but cannot make their voices heard as they cannot vote and lack political representation. Consequently, work happens in the name and interest of young people but doesn’t represent their actual social, economic, and political ambitions.
Breaking away from this often paternalistic treatment of young people, the Center for Catalyzing Change (C3), launched the YouthBol campaign in 2018, in an attempt to understand the health and well-being related needs and aspirations of young Indians. They asked young people one open-ended question: “For my physical and mental health and well-being, I want…”
C3 reported that this is one of the largest surveys of youth voices in the country, covering more than 1.1 lakh people between the ages 10 and 24, across 27 states and four union territories. It combined online and offline outreach to gain maximum coverage across geographies and socioeconomic groups.
C3 also made special efforts to include under-represented groups such as early adolescents (10 to 14-year-olds) and transgender youth. However, since the research chose not to adopt a sampling frame, certain demographic groups and geographical regions are over-represented in the findings. For instance, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, and Tripura together accounted for only 11 responses, while West Bengal alone had 14,544.
The year-long study culminated in the publication of YouthBol: Making Youth Voices Count. Here are highlights of what the report covered.
Better healthcare infrastructure emerged as a top priority, with approximately 36 percent of surveyed youth saying it was crucial to their health and well-being. Within healthcare infrastructure, the top priority expressed was the need for comprehensive information and services—particularly around sexual and reproductive health and rights, substance abuse, and mental health.
As adolescents are not a homogenous category, within the broader umbrella of health, the priorities of young people changed between age groups. For those in the age bracket of 15 to 19 years, understanding and managing substance abuse and mental health were their key areas of concern. On the other hand, getting more information about sex and sexuality, and access to affordable sexual health services such as contraception and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were most important for 20 to 24-year-olds.
Priorities also varied along gender lines. Young girls and women spoke out about the need for open conversations around menstrual hygiene and pain management. While for young boys, preventing and treating substance abuse was a key area of action. Specifically, they wanted more information around substance abuse that goes beyond alcohol and tobacco, including items such as paint thinners, correction fluid, and medication. In addition to building awareness, a clear need was expressed for an adolescent helpline to discuss substance abuse issues and improved access to free, good quality de-addiction and rehabilitation services.
Mental health emerged as the third key focus area within health. Young people experience a range of mental health challenges such as academic stress, peer pressure, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and learning disabilities. As a result, they expressed a pressing need for accessible, non-judgemental, confidential, and affordable mental health services. It’s important to note here, that safeguarding mental health was the primary ask from transgender youth.
A key insight from the YouthBol report is that young adults don’t think of their health and well-being in a vacuum. As a result, their demands went beyond the traditional understanding of health to include areas such as education, jobs, the environment, and socio-economic conditions, among others.
Young people—especially those between the ages of 10 and 14—spend a significant percentage of their time in school, so it is not surprising that 26 percent of them want better infrastructure and services in schools. Not only do they want schools to be better equipped with laptops, libraries, and playgrounds; young adults across gender and age groups also asked for canteens serving healthy, nutritious food, as well as clean toilets.
Feeding into the primary ask of better health, young people want key health services to be provided at the school itself. This includes checkups, access to basic medication, and information on contraception, reproduction, and pregnancy. Most importantly, young adults want workshops and training on reproductive health for themselves, and for their parents and teachers.
An unpolluted environment (especially clean air and water), was high up on the list of priorities for young people. This is unsurprising, given the looming threat of climate change and declining air and water quality.
Additionally, a cleaner environment (both natural and human-made), along with better sanitation and hygiene, is important in effectively addressing infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, which are prevalent among young people. To ensure that this need is met, the youth asked for heavier fines on those who pollute and proper garbage disposal facilities, among other things.
The responses of the youth survey linked improved health outcomes to better governance and the creation of infrastructure—roads, transport, electricity, anganwadis—and better access to information about their rights. Young people also emphasise the need for government programmes addressing poverty, caste-based discrimination, and deprivation, to bring about socio-economic equity.
The adolescents surveyed see a more gender-equal world as crucial to their physical and mental well-being. They want access to information around gender identity, sexual orientation, women empowerment, and gender-based discrimination, along with institutional mechanisms to help them deal with preventing and responding to instances of violence, abuse, child marriage, and dowry.
Quantitative and qualitative improvements in the institutional delivery of food was an important demand, especially since good nutrition is directly related to better health and well-being. Young people asked that the mid-day meal scheme be extended to cover students till class 12 and that the meals include locally available seasonal fruits.
The youth polled were acutely aware of how interrelated the economic, social, and political spheres are. They expressed the need for more job opportunities and information, along with access to skilling, in order to build productive, healthy lives.
YouthBol reiterates the fact that young people are not only invested in the issues around them, they also have the agency to speak for themselves. Across the world, an increasing number of young people are making their voices heard, about issues closest to their hearts—from climate change to employment to gender justice. As a sector, we need to amplify their voices so that they can influence the institutions and policies that directly affect their lives and choices.
About the author:
Tanaya Jagtiani: Tanaya is an editorial analyst at IDR, where she manages curated content, in addition to writing, editing, and sourcing content. Prior to this, Tanaya interned at Coram Beanstalk, Samhita Social Ventures, and ActionAid India. She has recently completed an MSc in Globalisation and Development from SOAS, University of London and holds a BA in Sociology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.