The Role of Slum Children and Youth toward a Better Future in an Urbanizing World
The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of seventeen bold new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by member nations during the General Assembly held in New York on September 2015, outlines specific focal areas for improving the status of vulnerable and impoverished populations. This is reflected by the emphasis of many of the seventeen SDG targets on achieving inclusive development, among them target eleven, which aims to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”
With over half of the world’s population under twenty-five years of age and one third of it under the age of fifteen, young people hold more keys and more power to our world’s sustainable future than ever before. While a substantial proportion of urban youth is benefiting from the technology available and using different media to connect with other young people across countries and continents, there is a large number of young people and children living in slums, informal settlements and similarly disadvantaged environments in the global south. According to the United Nations about 1.8 billion people out of a world population of 7.3 billion are aged between ten and twenty-four years old (Das Gupta et al. 2014). That is up from 721 million people in 1950, when the world’s population totaled 2.5 billion. Never before have there been so many young people globally, many of them living in developing countries. In fact, in the world’s forty-eight least developed countries, children and adolescents make up the majority of the population.
Rapid urbanization is another defining feature of today’s world, with nearly 55 percent of the global population being urban in 2016. But fast-paced urban growth places tremendous strain on housing and serviced land. By 2030, about three billion people, roughly 40 percent of the world’s population, are expected to need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services such as water and sanitation systems. This translates into the need to complete 96,150 housing units per day with serviced and documented land from now till 2030.
Deprivations and Challenges
The Global Report on Urban Health: Equitable, Healthier Cities for Sustainable Development, published in 2016 by the World Health Organization, states that the top six hundred cities, which account for one fifth of the world’s population, produce 60 percent of the global GDP (WHO 2016). At the same time, unplanned and unmanaged urbanization has led to increased inequality, the growth of slums and disastrous impacts on efforts towards sustainable development in today and tomorrow’s fast-growing cities. The urban youth population is steadily increasing, as is the proportion of this segment which is presented with lesser opportunities to contribute as citizens, as compared to children born into families with more resources, who therefore have better access to education and other opportunities. This unequal access to basic services along with extreme poverty, sub-optimal physical living environments, weak access to government entitlements and social benefits, discrimination, and lack of information hinder the potential of slum youth. Furthermore, slums and informal settlements, and consequently slum youth, are often considered illegal even in countries where constitutionally there is no concept of illegality of human beings.
According to UN-Habitat, 85 percent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, where they often comprise a large portion of their communities (UN-Habitat 2015). An increasing number of young people around the world are growing up in cities—especially in the fast-growing cities of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. In many cities across the African continent, more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of thirty. Yet these young people have few resources available to improve their own living environment. Today’s rapidly urbanizing world is full of social, environmental and economic inequalities which present important challenges for political and economic forces. Slum populations are facing spatial injustice across countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular, but also, to a lesser extent, in the Western world. Space in urban areas is becoming increasingly less accessible to those living in slums and other marginalized sections of cities. Youth, children and women use public spaces the most, be it for recreational purposes, such as playing games and sports, small neighborhood businesses or transportation. It is unfortunate that for urban slum communities and other similarly marginalized groups urban space is becoming increasingly less accessible. In emerging economies, such as the BRICS nations and other countries that are catching up, slum children and youth remain largely excluded from the benefits of economic progress that come with urbanization. Owing to a series of factors, including the lack of exposure to career avenues and low levels of encouragement from parents, schools or other sources, slum youth and children often opt out of their aspirations and fail to pursue paths that could fructify their potential. UN-Habitat estimates that young persons make up 25 percent of the global working age population, but account for 43.7 percent of the unemployed. This means that almost every other jobless person in the world is between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.
A World of Opportunities
Provided deliberate efforts are made to invest in their education and present them with better opportunities, these young people with tremendous energy and enthusiasm can not only build their lives as productive social beings, they can also contribute to their countries’ development and positive transformation.
It is crucial to nurture and stimulate the potential of urban disadvantaged youth in order to achieve equitable opportunities in an urbanizing world, particularly in low-and middle-income countries. The way governments, civil society and other stakeholders work to cultivate and nourish the aspirations of this segment of the young population and to address their needs will define our common future and the path towards sustainability. This segment represents a huge source of potential living in underprivileged communities whose contribution is as important as that of more fortunate young populations. There is a need to expedite the provision of opportunities towards socioeconomic development to slum children and youth as a means towards socially equitable society. There is vast potential in the large numbers of young people who are yet to gain education and training, and who can subsequently be employed as skilled, semi-skilled or highly skilled workers in various sectors, from the service industry to information technology or manufacturing, contributing to the economic growth of the increasingly urbanized economies of developing countries.
Constructive efforts being undertaken in Spain to include marginalized and excluded groups in public space and to democratize urban planning have delivered promising results. ArchDaily explains that Factoria Joven (youth factory), located in Merida, Spain, is a youth-inspired built space created from recycled materials. It holds a skate park and offers resources that empower and encourage young people to participate in public space and community-building. The concept was first introduced in 2006 by Carlos Javier Rodríguez Jiménez, a physical education teacher who studied the humanization of urban spaces, and four collaborators. Architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano were inspired by the forms and construction of Chinese dragons, and singled out inexpensive building materials for the project, including lightweight polycarbonate. In addition to outdoor sporting activities, art events and theatre, the building houses a computer lab and a dance studio, meeting rooms and spaces used for street theater, video projections and electronic music. A piece in the online magazine Architectism gives credit to the youth factory for attracting restless kids from the streets and providing them with a place to cycle, skateboard, dance, climb rocks, create graffiti—activities they would otherwise have to do in much more sinister surroundings (Architectism 2015). This demonstrates the need for public space, but also the resilience, creative energy, and perseverance of slum youth to create such space.
This segment represents a huge source of potential living in underprivileged communities whose contribution is as important as that of more fortunate young populations
In Kenya, the Mathare Environmental Conservation Youth Group (MECYG), a social enterprise run by young people, undertook community cleanups and established a garbage collection service in Mlango Kubwa, a community that houses about forty thousand dwellers and which had never had a similar service in the past. In 1997 MECYG gathered resources to build a youth center and a soccer field. The youth of Mlango Kubwa have responded by using the soccer field and community center every day, while violence in the area has diminished and most residents are happier and more positive.
Mlango Kubwa lies on the periphery of Mathare, one of Nairobi’s biggest slum clusters. Like in most slums, young people in Mathare face many challenges, from access to safe spaces to access to resources and opportunities. What distinguishes them from others, though, is their drive, enthusiasm and willingness to strive for change. They take no chances and work together to make their community a better place for all, but especially for the children and young people. This initiative highlights how the indomitable spirit of the Mathare community, and the desire, potential and talent of its youth inspired them to pursue sustainable urban development efforts that have created lasting positive changes for all residents.
In India, They Take Charge of Wellbeing Processes
“Resolve, Zest and Flight” is a slum youth stimulation initiative implemented by impoverished children across underprivileged communities in and around the cities of Indore and Agra in India. Approximately 100,000 people live in these communities and have access to the initiative organized by the Indian non-profit entity Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC). The approach involves encouraging the formation of children and youth groups in slums, mentored by slum women’s groups and UHRC’s social facilitators. The focal point of UHRC’s efforts is stimulation, motivation and capacity building.
Thirty children and youth groups with 450 members are active in the slums of Agra and Indore. Child and youth development is fostered through avenues for self-expression, team-work, excelling in performance, reasoning with self and cultivating positive self-image. The result is that communication and leadership skills are honed.
UHRC’s program facilitates the creation and use of platforms where youth and children can express themselves through oral and written communication, reciting poems and singing songs on themes such as determination and courage, which further contribute to increase their self-confidence. They have also staged street plays on preventing infections, the ill effects of alcoholism and other socially important themes, including performing outside their city in Mumbai, which lends added self-worth and confidence. Pursuing activities that they enjoy and gain knowledge and skills from also reinforces their growing self-confidence, as noted in earlier works (Payne 2008). These platforms are analogous to the concept of place, which “does not refer simply to a geographic location but also to the opportunities that are available to create meaning within a place” (Wilson 1997). Opportunities-based pedagogies as implemented by this program are effective in furthering learning and imparting knowledge and skills “which have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit” (Gruenewald 2003). The outcome of enhanced self-esteem and improved self-image among children and youth reinforces self-confidence in their own abilities. Reasoning with oneself during planning and action sessions develops thinking skills (Hwang and Nilsson 2003). Social interaction with peers and elders, women’s group members, volunteers from different walks of life, elected municipal representatives, and the education system helps young people to free themselves from difficult situations, focus towards the future, and acquire the ability to influence it (Vygotsky 1978).
A central tenet of this program is that the slum children and youth groups mentored by the slum women’s groups of the Urban Health Resource Centre should guide the design and implementation of the very program. As a proactive measure to foster gender equality every group has two leaders: one boy and one girl. Each group usually has between ten and twenty members. Every member must save a small amount, which is determined by the slum youth themselves and can vary from five to fifty Indian rupees. Collective saving and the use of resources to help prevent interruptions in their education and to organize activities such as sports days enable the children and youth to learn the importance of regular saving and of collective efforts.
Slum children and youth group members identify opportunity gaps, instances of inadequate stimulation, aspirations, ways to strengthen as groups, contribute to the progressive evolution of the program, and facilitate the creation of children and youth groups in neighboring slums. This program has been developing brick by brick over five years, with slum youth and children playing the role of experts and contributing to the continuous improvement of the approaches over time. Children and young people are motivated to give careful thought to certain key questions: “How can we collectively move towards addressing a given problem;” “how can we find more details on how to act to solve a problem;” “which aspects can be tackled by our own collective efforts and for which parts of the problem do we need to contact the authorities?” A similar approach to stimulate and develop thinking skills among children and youth has been stressed in earlier works (Devereux 2002).
Slum youth and children groups complement the efforts of slum women’s groups in identifying and implementing solutions to the challenges faced. They write collective petitions to municipal corporations for the garbage to be cleared and the drains to be cleaned; they fill up individual applications for income certificates and present them to the relevant local ward-level elected representatives and district offices in order to obtain the documents that make them eligible for the government’s education scholarship. Slum children and youth groups, supported by women’s groups in their neighborhood, promote the education of young girls and women, and could be central in efforts to reduce the gender inequality prevalent in the male-dominated society they are part of.
Education is emerging as an embodiment of inclusion, as knowledge about the risks of exclusion becomes widespread. Indeed, education is playing an important role in gradually, gently changing the long-standing social norms that perpetuate and reinforce social inequalities. An increasing number of the young are completing school education, and therefore complementing their family income; the social impact through improved gender sensitivity is visible; and other benefits of the program include improved hygiene and living environments. These outcomes are the result of practicing thought and encouraging reasoning and logical thinking. Recently, the need for computer literacy has become evident, as a means to make the most of access to the Internet and other digital tools. The development of these skills will help underprivileged communities access government schemes and services online, thereby reducing access costs.
The unequivocal and harsh reality that all corporate bosses, political leaders, administrators and all segments of reasonably affluent dwellers need to accept is that without slums, the hardware, multi-sector services of urban spaces will break down miserably
These actual experiences confirm that when presented with options and opportunities all human beings, including slum children and youth, would willingly engage in activities that they recognize as beneficial to their self-development and/or empowering when it comes to facing the challenges that will allow them to positively transform their lives. The program also enables them to build greater recognition in their schools and in their communities, which acts as an additional motivating factor for them to persevere with program efforts. Children and youth progressively strengthen their faith in their growing ability to improve their future and that of their neighborhood. Self-confidence, social interaction with peers and persons external to their social milieu, and the development of collaborative skills and leadership all contribute towards self-improvement.
What Is Crucial to Pursue
Our image of shanty towns results from what we observe as we drive past slums while comfortably ensconced in the temperature-regulated interior of our cars. However, slum populations contribute significantly to maintaining city life. The unequivocal and harsh reality that all corporate bosses, political leaders, administrators and all segments of reasonably affluent dwellers need to accept is that without slums, the hardware, multi-sector services of urban spaces will break down miserably.
Lack of youth empowerment can lead to tokenism. Hence it is critical that inclusive efforts are implemented with the sincerity necessary to ensure that marginalized groups are encompassed in their scope such that they can have their say and contribute to society in equitable and meaningful ways. Following years of intense lobbying and stressful negotiations, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon declared that these new sustainable development goals are “the people’s agenda” (Ki-moon 2016). While this gives hope, in order to achieve any sort of progress on the people’s agenda the people themselves must be equipped to lead the process of change.
A coordinated effort by government agencies, civil society organizations, associations of slum youth and adults, and socially sensitive citizens holds the potential of improving physical and social living conditions on the ground, enhancing education and skills building, promoting hygiene and sanitation behaviors, and fostering enhanced value in the role of women and girls in their communities. This would go a long way toward nurturing slum youth and preparing them for greater responsibilities. Additionally, senior youths can mentor and enhance the education and confidence-building experiences of younger youths and children in slums.
It is my hope that when senior officials of different United Nations agencies, country government politicians, bureaucrats and others in positions of authority participate in high-level UN and other global, regional and national meetings, they spend at least eight to ten hours in slums at the location of the meeting. This will enable decision-makers to learn of solutions from the real experts: the local slum residents, including energetic children and youth who live their challenging life 24/7, 365 days of the year. This way, the resolutions and guidelines for nations, ministries and administrative entities crafted by them would certainly be more realistic (even if they might seem difficult).
Facilitating ownership among young people from slums and their families is critical, instead of the tokenistic “participation”—a word that for decades has been used to pass off strategies as being pro-poor or being sensitive towards marginalized people. When slum youth and other similarly disadvantaged groups take charge of the processes, that shifts the balance of power towards more accountable governance in our fast-growing cities, as well as in rural areas. This can also get real action to actually be implemented in the interest of the marginalized, including women, girls, youth and children. The time is now to democratize urban development and create space for marginalized populations, especially youth, to contribute their ideas in ways that can produce lasting sustainable impact.
A doctor by training, he has worked in the fields of research and programming in the areas of public health, social welfare and normative support for national and regional governments. He is the director of the Urban Health Resource Centre in New Delhi, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health, nutrition and welfare of the inhabitants of underprivileged urban zones, and which played a key role in the National Urban Health Mission which mandates reaching out to all listed and unlisted slums, vulnerable settlements in India. He has been a member of several international committees and panels, member of several Government of India committees and an adviser to the World Health Organization, UN-Habitat, UNFPA. He teaches public health from a multidisciplinary perspective at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg, Washington University, University of California, Berkeley, TERI University, Institut d’Etudes Politiques Sciences Po, Paris, and is past president and executive board member of the International Society for Urban Health. Recipient of the AXA Outlook Award 2014, nomination-based award by Paris-based AXA Research Fund, and of the Rotary Vocational Service Award for his services towards the betterment of the underprivileged in 2015.
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