Paving a way forward for Indigenous youth

By Rahul Antao
Indigenous youth discuss key issues at the 15th Session of the Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues in New York. Photo Credit: GIYC 

As young guardians of biodiversity, Indigenous youth play an important role in sustainable development, long-term food security, responding to climate change while safeguarding the earth’s ecosystem 

13 May Rome - “As Indigenous youth, we will continue to organize ourselves in line with the collective processes of our ancestors in defence of our lands, territories, transmission of our traditional knowledge and historical memory,” said Dali Angel, co-chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) in an interview with UN-DESA prior to the 15th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

“We will continue our intergenerational dialogue and raise our voices against any injustice and violation of our individuals and collective rights.”

Angel’s statement echoes the many voices of young indigenous people who are overtly expressive of their contribution towards a sustainable future where they rightfully see themselves as pivotal part of the transformation.

This comes as no surprise, especially since indigenous youth have a big opportunity at stake.
Indigenous youth take on 80 per cent of the world’s biological diversity passed down over generations by their forefathers for their own custodianship. As the young guardians of biodiversity, they will be handed this baton of responsibility and play an important role in sustainable development, long-term food security, responding to climate change while safeguarding the earth’s ecosystem.

But to do it, they will have to overcome some of their biggest social hurdles and challenges of development. Despite some of the advances and inclusion into the policy arena, indigenous communities and their youth continue to face forms of discrimination and exclusion.

In many ways, this has left their societies vulnerable to unrest and societal disturbances.
Indigenous children and youth are particularly vulnerable to structural discrimination and marginalization, resulting in alarmingly high levels of poverty and poor health. Young indigenous women are especially disadvantaged, affecting their opportunities to enter the job market and their ability to make decisions about their reproductive lives.

On 9 May 2016, the world’s many indigenous leaders gathered in New York for the 15th session of the Forum. The theme for this year’s forum was Peace, Conflict and Resolution. Amongst the participants is a cohort of young and enthusiastic indigenous people of the GIYC who presented their views, statements and recommendations for young indigenous people.

With the support of IFAD, the GIYC organised a preparatory meeting on the 8th of May as a precursor to the event to ensure that the voice of the youth is an organised one that expresses the collective views of all indigenous youth present.

'Youth are the agents of social transformation'

In line with this year’s theme, Dali mentions that there are several concerns for indigenous youth worldwide, each in their own context and all equally important.

Yet, she goes on to reassuringly mention “(indigenous) youth are the agents of social transformation” and advocates the need for young people to return to traditional and communal forms of organisation that existed prior to conflicts.

She also reminds us how education is one of the major concerns orbiting indigenous youth and that the ability to remain in the educational system should “incorporate the cultural, linguistic, social needs and the recovery of indigenous peoples historical memory, traditions, culture and traditional knowledge.”

In recent years, intercultural and bilingual education has been recognized and such programmes have had a positive impact on indigenous peoples' communities.

Evaluations show that children who participate in intercultural and bilingual education classes perform better, both in their first and second language. The use of indigenous languages and the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in the curriculum have increased the interest of families and students in their history, and in their present and future learning and development opportunities.

Photo Credit: GIYC 
It is important to also realise that underpinning young indigenous people in their cultures through education, knowledge and community organization also helps counter the high prevalence of mental health issues, and in particular the disproportionately high suicide rates among indigenous youth.

According to a recent article published by the UN Economic and Social Council the high level of suicide rates amongst indigenous youth are related to the ‘severe  - and often invisible – discriminatory pressures they are confronted in reconciling past colonial injustices with their search for a better future’.

Speaking on the recent alarming rate of suicides amongst indigenous youth, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, also addressed the Permanent Forum on the topic of self-harm. 

Ahmad said that the struggles of young indigenous peoples are also embedded in the “socio-economic challenges, marginalization, feelings associated with loss of culture and self-determination.”

However, Ahmad points out that even with the rise of such issues we should not look at indigenous youth as liabilities but rather as assets, stating that “Indigenous youth are powerful messengers of their communities” in bringing their diverse voices to the surface and that there is a need to listen carefully and be sensitive to their concerns and priorities.

Summarizing the way forward, Ahmad says there are three key points:

  • The first, is to ensure that young indigenous peoples have a voice not just in their communities but also at a global scale and starting at the UN. 
  • The second, is aligned with the partnership aspect of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ahmad calls for further collaboration with UN partners including the WHO and UNICEF, on strategies to tackle self-harm and suicide amongst indigenous young peoples. “We need to collect best practices on suicide prevention, and share this information with others” he said.
  • The third, there is a need to further expand partnerships with the Indigenous youth and tap into their knowledge and expertise in order to push for policies that will reach the local level. Supporting the aspirations of the groups like the GIYC, he says  “more young indigenous peoples are needed in the work of the Permanent Forum to voice the views and concerns of youth. Through their involvement they can help shape the advice the Permanent Forum gives to UN agencies, funds and programmes, particularly those concerning indigenous youth.”

Rahul Antao is a junior consultant for the youth desk at IFAD.