Youth Empowerment: Always Room to Improve

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs



Thank you for the invitation to speak here today at your Youth hui. I am delighted to see so many people who all share a commitment to New Zealand ?s youth.

There is also a growing commitment internationally, nationally, and regionally, to the notion of "Youth participation". The challenge now is how we make it a reality for young people in New Zealand so my speech today will outline some areas where work is already underway to encourage youth participation at every level.

International developments
I know that it has become a bit of a clich é to say that we are part of a global community, but when it comes to youth issues we certainly are.

For all of us here, the importance of establishing links, of monitoring international trends and of keeping an eye on developments overseas, should not be dismissed. With growing access to the electronic media there are now more avenues than ever before to look around the world and see what each other is up to. All over the world young people are thinking about and acting on the same issues that will be considered at this hui.

This was illustrated to me earlier this year when I attended the Commonwealth Youth Minister?s meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There were delegates from all over the world who came together to share information about youth initiatives in their countries. I found it really stimulating to realise that the issues for young people are the same no matter which country you?re from.

Things like youth participation, and youth empowerment; involving young people in decisions that affect them; the importance of education and the need for responsive health services which are tailored to the specific needs of young people. These issues are pretty universal.

I expect you will find the same thing here over the next two days.

Youth empowerment
The issue of youth empowerment is one that I am particularly passionate about at the moment, and if you visit my Website you will see that I have given a lot of speeches on the topic lately.

To me one of the most important things to encourage in young people, is the ability to stand confidently on their own two feet and voice their concerns or make their views known. This is essential if you are to have a say in the decisions which affect you.

Although adults won't always like what you say, if you can find constructive ways to say it, and if you can propose answers and solutions, then you should go for it.

A paper entitled "Youth Empowerment in the New Millenium: The Commonwealth Plan of Action on Youth Empowerment to the Year 2005" outlines an internationally accepted plan for empowering young people?s participation.

The Commonwealth Plan identifies that young people are empowered when they:

feel they have or can create choices in life;
are aware of the implications of those choices;
make an informed decision freely;
take action based on that decision; and
accept responsibility for the consequences of that action.
Empowering young people also means creating and supporting the conditions under which young people are empowered. Namely:

an economic and social base;
a supportive legal and administrative framework;
a stable political environment of equality, peace and democracy; and
access to knowledge, information and skills.
There will always be room for improvement, but here in New Zealand we have all of these things, especially in comparison to many other countries. So really, I see no excuse for holding back.

But the key to empowering young people is for everyone to work together: government, non-government organisations, the media, educational institutions, the private sector, family, schools, community networks, youth peer groups and, above all, young people.

The Commonwealth Plan in tandem with our commitment to UNCROC, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, provides a good basis for strengthening the involvement of young people. It also puts the onus on all of us to foster a sense of responsibility and self-esteem in young New Zealanders.

National initiatives
Article 42 of UNCROC: Research

The importance of youth empowerment and participation has been reflected in feedback the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Commissioner for Children got recently when they surveyed children and young people between 10 and 17. The survey was to find out what they knew, and wanted to know about their rights. Only a quarter of those surveyed knew that they have formal rights under UNCROC, while only a half knew that they were entitled to education, freedom of speech and lack of abuse.

Clearly more work needs to be done in this area, so my challenge to the youth workers here today is that you think about ways in which you can all empower young people better.

The youth advisory group on the project made the following suggestions about involving young people in decision-making.

They said:

Adults need to make the first approach;
Be careful not to criticise children and young people. Accept them and their views;
Sometimes young people aren?t open with adults because they are scared or shy. Take time to get to know them;
Negativity is contagious - adults need to be positive around kids.
As one young person who responded to the survey said;

?The times have changed. Children should still respect their elders, but it?s a two-way relationship. Adults need to respect us too.?

I?m not sure whether any of you saw the Fatherhood documentary last week with Sean Fitzpatrick, but that gave some very similar messages about the need to encourage young people and offer them praise and opportunities to learn from their mistakes, rather than constantly seeking to put them down. As one of the fathers said ?we sometimes forget that children are not there to be perfected in time for some future handover date.?

The Prime Minister?s Youth Advisory Forum
One way that the Coalition Government is enhancing youth participation is through the Prime Minister?s youth advisory forum, which was announced recently. The forum provides young people aged 12 to 25 with an opportunity to advise government about issues that are significant to their lives. It will be a chance for young people to have their say about the future of New Zealand at the highest level.

The Youth Advisory Forum will provide both the Prime Minister, and myself as Minister of Youth Affairs, with a chance to discuss with youth, a range of issues of concern to them.

The forums will be run by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in partnership with young people. Young people will be involved in the planning and evaluation of the forums to ensure that they are meeting the purpose for which they were established. If they?re not then both the Prime Minister and I want to know about it.

Three forums will be held annually and I know the Prime Minister is looking forward to the first one.

New Zealand Youth Policy
Another project that the Ministry of Youth Affairs is working on is the development of a New Zealand Youth Policy. This too is aimed at improving youth empowerment and the responsiveness of government agencies to the needs of young people.

The draft policy is based on the five themes that underpin the work of the Ministry of Youth Affairs:

Citizenship - participation and empowerment in society;
Family - the changing relationship between young people and family/whanau;
Wellbeing - the state of good physical, social, cultural, spiritual and
mental health;
Learning - in the formal secondary and tertiary system, and informal
learning of social skills, behaviors and attitudes; and
Working - entry into, and involvement in, the labour force.
The New Zealand Youth Policy will help to provide the sort of political and social environment in which young people can participate and have their views taken seriously.

The development of the policy will take place over the next couple of months.

Regional initiatives
Arguably the test of our success, as a country in empowering young people, will be what happens on the ground. All around the country young people are already participating in their communities.

Here are a couple of examples on the East Coast.

The Gisborne Young Persons? Council is planning a one day forum to allow young people to meet the candidates in local body elections and ask them questions. They hope that by starting locally and providing conditions that enable young people to become involved in local politics, they will also be encouraged to vote in national elections. The forum will be ?future focussed? so that young people will have the opportunity to question candidates about their plans for the region. I think this is an excellent idea and there is no reason why other communities can?t emulate this plan.

The success of this initiative lies in good preparatory work and the fact the young people have been actively involved in organising the day.

Also in Gisborne, the Youth Council there has set up a buddy system so that youth councillors can meet, one to one, with people on the local Council. This enables them to learn about district council processes, and public and community issues. The aim is to try and get around some of the barriers that can stand in the way of youth participation. In particular there is a lack of information about issues, and knowledge about and access to decision-making processes.

In Christchurch, Waitakere City, on the West Coast of the South Island and on the Kapiti Coast in the North Island young people are taking up opportunities to participate in decision-making about them.

Just the other day I heard about a 19 year old guy who is planning on standing for Council in the local body elections. I think it?s great and I would certainly like to see more young people joining him.

In conclusion, what I have learnt in the past 18 months is if you want something to happen, you often have to make it happen yourself. Hence the PM?s Youth Advisory Forum and the New Zealand Youth Policy. While it would be great if we could rely on other people to achieve change, invariably that is not how it works.

Some of the greatest initiatives for youth that I have observed have often come from young people themselves, or from people who have taken the bull by the horns and set something up in spite of the obstacles.

This hui is a great example of youth participation in action and the organisers and participants should be commended for your efforts and commitment. I wish you all the best for the rest of your hui.

Thank you.