Bridging the GAP: Urban advocacy for children and youths

The first in an occasional series on the stakeholder groups that make up the General Assembly of Partners.

A girl in Timbuktu, Mali. In the next 15 years, 60 percent of city dwellers will be under 18. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

The General Assembly of Partners (GAP) is the main vehicle for civil society and other stakeholders to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, next year’s major summit on urbanization. By necessity the GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 12 constituent groups. In the coming months, Citiscope will profile how these groups are preparing for the summit, with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to the constituents of each.

According to the most recent U. N. statistics, the global youth population today is at a record high — some 1.8 billion. Cities have absorbed most of this boom in young people: UN-Habitat estimates that in the next 15 years, 60 percent of city dwellers will be under 18.

Rapidly urbanizing Africa, for instance, is an incredibly youthful continent, with over 70 percent of its population under 30 years old. Its population as a whole is expected to be majority urban by 2030.

Yet urban labor markets have failed to keep up with this demand. Nearly half of the 200 million unemployed worldwide are youths. Around 150 million young people live on less than USD 1.25 a day, and UN-Habitat classifies some 300 million working poor.

“We know that millions of children and youth live without adequate shelter, deprived of basic conditions in urban areas,” said Joyati Das of World Vision International, an NGO focused on children and the interim chair of the GAP constituent group for children and youths. “Children are the first casualties of urban poverty — often living on the streets, engaged in hazardous child labour and trafficked to the city.”

[See: New General Assembly of Partners aims to broaden global focus on Habitat III]

Many of the priority human rights issues for youths play out in urban areas. Child labour in sweatshop conditions, the focus of campaigns from Bangladesh to Southeast Asia, has been widely documented in the textile plants of cities’ industrial zones, where they often provide important tax bases.

Across Central America, pressure from urban gangs has pushed tens of thousands of underage migrants to the U. S.-Mexico border. Cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, now rank among the most violent in the world, with children both perpetrators and victims.

But in most countries with democratic systems of government, children are not voters. The world’s youngest voting age is 16 — in Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua — although a minimum of 18 is far more common.

That doesn’t mean the voices of children and youths can’t be heard. “Governments need to frame institutional and legal frameworks that enable participation and consultation of youth and children and their representative community organizations in decision-making of human settlement strategies, policies and programmes,” Das says.

To that end, the U. N. Major Group for Children and Youth, the interim vice-chair of the GAP constituent group, has been organizing consultations with groups of young people about the issues around Habitat III, next year’s major cities summit. The group has already hosted eight consultations, relying on its passionate network of youth advocates with strong ties to their home countries.

“At an orphanage in New Delhi, the main issue was mobility and access to the city because of overcrowded buses and trains that are not child-friendly,” recounted Hirotaka Koike, the group’s point person for Habitat III. In Cairo, he said, local youths focused on health; in Stockholm, on migration.

Everywhere, meanwhile, public space has been a constant refrain. For poor youths in dense cities, there is a lack of space for young people to talk, play, or even date and have sex. In New Delhi, Koike said, the orphanage residents talked about a gymnasium where couples go in lieu of any more private location; the public realm, if well designed and managed, can indeed provide a safe space for less graphic moments, such as flirting and displays of affection.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

The Major Group hopes to hold over 20 such consultations before Habitat III in order to come up with a concrete set of issues to push for on behalf of children and youths in the New Urban Agenda — the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of the conference. Already, issues that have wound their way into the Post-2015 Development Agenda, such as youth unemployment and decent work, are early candidates for topic areas that this constituent group will lobby for in the world’s urban agenda, as well.

Note: This story has been edited to reflect the findings and stance of the U. N. Major Group for Children and Youth.

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