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Challenges for Sri Lankan Youth- By Nishantha Mallawaarachchi

Challenges for Sri Lankan Youth- By Nishantha Mallawaarachchi

This is an extract of a paper presented for the United Nations Pan-Asia Youth Leadership Summit, September 2004
Youth are a valuable resource for any country and they are most often seen as a metaphor for hope, change and regeneration. In Sri Lanka however, mainly due to several violent youth insurrections during the past 30 years, youth are sometimes seen as a problem that needs solutions, rather than as a partner in the country’s development process. This paper argues that there is an urgent need to adopt clear and consistent policies relating to youth issues in Sri Lanka, with a view to creating an enabling environment to empower Sri Lankan youth and to ensure their involvement in the dialogue and processes of national development.

Reflecting the confusion elsewhere, definition of the term “youth” is not consistently applied in Sri Lanka. The National Youth Services Council, which is the premier implementing body relating to youth issues in Sri Lanka, as youth young people between the ages of 15-29. Accordingly, youth comprise about roughly 21 % of the entire population. Many of the characteristics of the population as a whole in the country are reflected among the population of youth. Consistent with the distribution for the country’s population, a majority of youth live in rural areas. Literacy rate among youth is over 90%, with little difference between the sexes or urban and rural areas. With the increasing age at marriage, the proportion of married youth is declining as is youth fertility and mortality rates. As shown by the literacy rates, mortality, morbidity data and access to services such as education and health, the youth - in common with the country as a whole - enjoy high rates of human development. Yet they continue to face several challenges, mainly poverty and low income, unemployment and lack of opportunities, lack of representation and lack of clarity and continuity in youth policies.

Some of Key Issues facing the Sri Lankan Youth

According to the official national poverty line calculated by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), almost 23% of the population, or close to 20 % of households in the country, lived below the national poverty line in the year 2002. In terms of economic constrains, low income is mostly due to lack of employment opportunities and unemployment is an issue for youth no matter where they live. In urban, rural and estate sectors, youth unemployment is consistently higher than for the labour market as a whole. In addition, unemployment rate among the 15-29 years age group is on the rise; between 2000 and 2004 second quarter, there has been an increase of more than 10 percentage points in youth unemployment to 34.2 %. There are many social costs associated with lack of employment as it forces young people to stay at home longer than they or their parents may wish which leads to increased, frustration and mental stress. Dissatisfaction and frustration of youth, specially the educated rural youth, is already recognized as one of the major threats to the political stability of the country.

National insurgencies led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the early 1970s and late 1980s has been attributed mainly to the failure of national mechanisms to address issues such as unemployment, class disparities, and unequal distribution of resources to rural areas as compared to Colombo (the commercial capital). It has been argued that the 1971 and 1987 insurrections and contemporary youth politics reflect dissatisfaction with the domination of the Sri Lankan political and administrative structures by upper middle class elite (Serasundara, 1998).

Despite publicly provided free education from primary level all the way to tertiary levels, the education system in Sri Lanka is primarily blamed for youth employment. This is exemplified in the fact that graduate unemployment is also on the rise with 62.3% of the graduates without jobs in 1995. Many young people believe that the education system has failed to fulfil their career aspirations. For rural, monolingual youth, a common sentiment is that the English language is used by the urban elite as “a sword of oppression” and that access to learning the language has not been fair. Fuelling the discontent was the emergence of bureaucratic inefficiencies, corruption and apathy in governance. (Presidential Commission on Youth 1990; de Silva and Peiris 1995). Despite there being 13 nationally recognized universities in the country, they can accommodate only 2% of eligible candidates. In addition, many universities lack resources and qualified and able teaching staff. Many feel that there is a mismatch between the education curricula and labour market. Insufficient knowledge of English and lack of practical training has been one of the deciding factors for this situation. However, of late there has been more focus on skills development through vocation training institutes but they are yet to have a significant impact on youth employment. Even though the government is developing strategies to reduce the information gap by establishing modernized facilities such as Internet access in post offices in rural areas, many young people cannot access these facilities owing to economic constraints. Although some universities are now offering diplomas and university degrees in new fields with good career prospects, information on these new opportunities is not readily available.

Many youth issues remain unaddressed also because youth lack sufficient access to the decision making process. Leadership and commitment to participation in decision-making processes is not at a satisfactory level among Sri Lankan youth and in addition, in a culture that venerates age and experience, there is little space for young people to reach leadership positions. However, this picture may be changing with the rapid advent of the JVP as a political party, which is a key partner in the current coalition Government. From the last general election held in April 2004, 39 JVP candidates - many of whom are in their 30s entered the parliament - which augurs well for developing greater opportunities for youth representation in national dialogue.

Lack of clarity and consistency in youth policies has also impeded youth development. Too frequent political changeovers have impacted the implementation of government programmes for youth; for example, the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) finds it difficult to reach long-term goals because of changes in the political leadership and the consequent changes in policy objectives and programmes. With the recent change in government, the NYSC has discontinued many youth programmes it had been implementing such as Thurunushakthi ( a television programme and youth camp), Sahasra ( Job information Centre), Weera sebala sathkaraka walalla ( Voluntary assistance programme for disabled soldiers and their families )


Since poverty and low income is a very important issue for youth in Sri Lanka, there is an urgent need to develop a sustainable mechanism which creates an enabling environment for them to participate in more income generation activities. It should be a priority to provide more employment opportunities for youth. It is the responsibility of both government and non-governmental organisations to provide young people and representatives of youth organisations (NYSC – Youth Clubs) in rural areas the opportunity to enter into a critical, effective dialogue with experts and policy makers for policy planning and identification of their needs. Policy making and planning must be both at the community and the national level. Action planning that exists only within the national level will be ineffective, since it does not address the main issues and challenges for the majority of Sri Lankan youth (specially rural youth). At the policy level there is little progress. A National Youth Policy (NYP) was drafted in April 2001, at the request of the Commonwealth. This draft NYP attempts to follow the principles of human rights, national integration, and gender sociality. The youth policy also identifies certain groups as being particularly vulnerable and needing urgent attention. These groups include young prisoners, drug addicts, those out of parental care, the disabled, youth solders and youth in the estates and city slums. The Government of Sri Lanka has a responsibility to develop policy approaches towards the empowerment of young people. Youth too have a responsibility to accept challenges, ability to take initiative, and independent decisions, and have a clear vision, to think creatively if they are make a contribution towards making this country a better place.

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