Youth empowerment is a process where children and young people are encouraged to take charge of their lives. They do this by addressing their situation and then take action in order to improve their access to resources and transform their consciousness through their beliefs, values, and attitudes. Youth empowerment aims to improve quality of life. Youth empowerment is achieved through participation in youth empowerment programs. However scholars argue that children’s rights implementation should go beyond learning about formal rights and procedures to give birth to a concrete experience of rights. There are numerous models that youth empowerment programs use that help youth achieve empowerment. A variety of youth empowerment initiatives are underway around the world. These programs can be through non-profit organizations, government organizations, schools or private organizations.
Youth empowerment is different than youth development because development is centered on developing individuals, while empowerment is focused on creating greater community change relies on the development of individual capacity.
Empowerment movements, including youth empowerment, originate, gain momentum, become viable, and become institutionalized. Youth empowerment is often addressed as a gateway to intergenerational equity, civic engagement and democracy building. Activities may focus on youth-led media, youth rights, youth councils, youth activism, youth involvement in community decision-making, and other methods.
Elements of empowerment
Empowerment theory focuses on processes that enable participation; enhance control through shared decision making; and create opportunities to learn, practice, and increase skills. Empowerment theory suggests that engaging youth in pro-social, meaningful, and community-enhancing activities that the youth themselves define and control, helps youth gain vital skills, responsibilities, and confidence necessary to become productive and healthy adults.
Types of empowerment
Youth empowerment examines six interdependent dimensions: psychological, community, organizational, economic, social and cultural. Psychological empowerment enhances individual's consciousness, belief in self-efficacy, awareness and knowledge of problems and solutions and of how individuals can address problems that harm their quality of life. This dimension aims to create self-confidence and give youth the skills to acquire knowledge.Community empowerment focuses on enhancing the community through leadership development, improving communication, and creating a network of support to mobilize the community to address concerns. Organizational empowerment aims to create a base of resources for a community, including voluntary organizations, unions and associations that aim to protect, promote and advocate for the powerless. Economic empowerment teaches entrepreneurial skills, how to take ownership of their assets and how to have income security. Social empowerment teaches youth about social inclusion and literacy as well as helping kids find the resources to be proactive in their communities. Cultural empowerment aims to recreate cultural practices and redefine cultural rules and norms for youth. Through these dimensions of empowerment, programs can work on empowering youth in one or more aspects of their lives.
Goals of empowerment
Youth empowerment programs are aimed at creating healthier and higher qualities of life for underprivileged or at-risk youth. The five competencies of a healthy youth are: (1) positive sense of self, (2) self- control, (3) decision-making skills, (4) a moral system of belief, and (5) pro-social connectedness. Developmental interventions and programs have to be anchored on these competencies that define positive outcomes of healthy youth.
Over the last two decades, quality of life (QOL) has emerged as an important unit of measurement to evaluate the success of empowerment programs. It is used as a goal of programs and as well as an indicator of effectiveness. However, there is no standard definition of QOL. A person's QOL is dependent upon subjective evaluation of the individual aspects of that individual's life.
Positive development settings
Youth empowerment programs thrive in positive developmental settings. Positive developmental settings promote youth competence, confidence and connections. Two features of the positive developmental youth settings are supportive relationships and support for efficacy and mattering. Supportive relationships are those that are between youth and non-familial adults that foster trust and respect. Support for efficacy and mattering specifically focuses on youth being active, instrumental agents of change in their communities, collective decision-making and adults listen to and respect their voice.
Youth empowerment programs
There are various types of empowerment programs across the globe that empower youth through many different tactics and programs. Programs can operate in a variety of settings. The majority of programs operate in more than one setting, which may be a key factor in their success. The beneficial outcomes to youth empowerment programs are improved social skills, improved behavior, increased academic achievement, increased self-esteem and increased self-efficacy.
There are programs are aimed at just empowering women and young girls. Regardless of specific goals or methods, empowering effects include improving women’s wellbeing, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, and enhancing social status by teaching technical and organizational skills.
Other youth empowerment programs are focused on poverty alleviation. Living standards are for those living in poverty are declining causing forms of deprivation as it relates to food, resources and education. Programs aimed at empowering poor youth, work toward livelihood protection or livelihood promotion.
There are also empowerment movements that use the social action model, aiming for disadvantaged people to become empowered, organized, and educated so that they may create change. These programs advocate for constructive confrontations to enhance the social power of people who are considered disadvantaged. Another model is the 5C's model that focuses on emphasizing competence, confidence, connection, character and caring. A sixth C of contribution to society was later added. This model focuses primarily on engagement as a key marker of positive youth development, emphasizing the need to foster initiative. Youth-adult partnerships are another type of empowerment method used around the world. This method has been defined as a developmental process and a community practice. The partnership involves people of different ages working together on community issues over a period of time. The method emphasizes reciprocity among adults and youth with a focus on shared decision making and reflective learning. The concept of shared control is key for empowering youth.
Youth empowerment has also been used as a framework to prevent and reduce youth violence. Research shows that these youth empowerment programs can improve conflict avoidance and resolution skills, increase group leadership skills, and civic efficacy  and improve ethnic identity and reduce racial conflict.
Examples of youth empowerment programs
Around the globe there are various empowerment programs focused on a wide variety of things and this is not a comprehensive list. Unsuccessful youth empowerment programs have not been carefully documented or published in case studies.
In Namibia, one popular empowerment program is Pots of Hope. Pots of Hope's main goal is to reduce the vulnerability youth to HIV and Aids through education, information and awareness, as well as income security projects. Pots of Hope works by educating, and providing counseling to those in rural settings who do not have access to those resources. This program focuses on organizational empowerment within the community.
Within the United States there are countless empowerment programs for youth. Urban 4-H is a culturally responsive, community-based practice that authentically engages families, youth and the community in the development of youth. Urban 4-H is an example of community empowerment that focuses on the economic and social dimensions of empowerment. The program helps youth build skills to enable them to overcome economic and social barriers while recognizing the importance of self-directed learning for youth. Urban 4-H focuses on empowering youth to think critically, communicate across cultural boundaries and lead others.
The United Nations has numerous development programs, one of them being youth empowerment programs. The United Nations provides support to national policy development surrounding empowerment within the five regions. They do this by providing evidence-based policy guidance and programmatic support by promoting the active participation of youth in society. The UNDP promotes inclusive youth participation in effective and democratic governance, economic empowerment of youth, strengthened youth engagement in building resilience in their communities, inclusion of youth in the future development agenda, including through consultations and discussions. The United Nations youth empowerment programs examine all four dimensions of youth empowerment and seeks to improve all of them.
USAID has youth empowerment programs set up around the world that are aimed at civic engagement, access to resources and opportunities for education and employment.
For a more comprehensive list: List of youth empowerment organizations
Government involvement in empowerment
Youth empowerment is often addressed as a gateway to intergenerational equity, civic engagement and democracy building. Local, state, provincial, regional, national, and international government agencies and nonprofit community-based organizations provide programs centered on youth empowerment. Activities involved therein may focus on youth-led media, youth rights, youth councils, youth activism, youth involvement in community decision-making, and other methods.
Each major political party in the United States, including the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Green Party, as well as several major European, African, South American (Peru), and Australian political parties have statements supporting youth empowerment. Youth empowerment is also a central tenet of the United NationsConvention on the Rights of the Child, which every country in the world (minus the United States and South Sudan) has signed into law.
Youth empowerment occurs in homes, at schools, through youth organizations, government policy-making and community organizing campaigns. Major structural activities where youth empowerment happens throughout society include community decision-making, organizational planning, and education reform.
Educational activities that cite youth empowerment as an aim include student-centered learning, popular education, and service learning. Free schools and youth-led media organizations often state their intention to empower youth, as well as youth voice, community youth development, and youth leadership programs. Youth empowerment is studied by a variety of scholars including Shawn Ginwright, Henry Giroux, Barry Checkoway, Mike Males and Marc A. Zimmerman. Their research is highlighted by advocacy from notable activists such as William Upski Wimsatt, Alex Koroknay-Palicz, Salome Chasnoff and Adam Fletcher.
Republic of Ireland
Main article: Comhairle na nÓg
In 2002 Comhairle na nÓg was established in each local authority area as part of the National Children's strategy. Comhairle na nÓg is Irish for Youth Council. These councils are encouraged to include the participation of young people from all walks of life and to tackle local issues affecting young people. It is run by the local county or city councils under the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is a recognized political organisation by the Irish Government. An extension of Comhairle na nÓg is the Comhairle na nÓg National Executive. The National Executive has one "youth councillor" from every Comhairle na nÓg and deal with issues important to young people. These issues are nominated by young people themselves at an AGM every two years. The Comhairle na nÓg National Executive has the opportunity to express there views in a form of a researched report, ad-campaign, conferences, seminars and to put those views to policy makers.
The 53 member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations have all signed up to the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (2007–2015). The Plan of Action underpins the work of the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP). On the Commonwealth definition, "Young people are empowered when they acknowledge that 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 those actions. Empowering young people means creating and supporting the enabling conditions under which young people can act on their own behalf, and on their own terms, rather than at the direction of others."
The Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment was developed by the Commonwealth Secretariat, working closely with Ministers of Youth and young people themselves. It encourages youth mainstreaming and contains thirteen action points for governments. The first of these is: “Develop and implement measures to promote the economic enfranchisement of young people” through a range of measures ranging from micro-credit and entrepreneurship education through to reviewing macro-economic planning and trade regimes and how they affect young people. Other action points address gender equality, HIV/AIDS, education, the environment, youth participation in decision-making, and democracy and human rights.
Benefits of empowerment
When youth participate in established empowerment programs they see a variety of benefits. The practices of youth involvement and empowerment become embedded within the organizational culture and the community culture. Adults and organizations also benefit from empowerment programs. The both become more communicable and responsive to youth in the community, which leads to program improvements as well as increased participation from youth.
Critiques of youth empowerment
One major critique of youth empowerment is that most programs take a risk-focused approach. There has been a major emphasis on what is going wrong for youth in their lives rather than what goes right. This portrays young people as a problem that need to be fixed, and displays the process of development as a process of overcoming risk. This may deter youth from joining youth development programs. The risked-based model can obscure the fact that adolescence is a time when young people master skills and concepts.
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“The world now has the largest generation of young people in history. I place great hope in their power to shape our future,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told leaders and dignitaries at High-Level Event on the Demographic Dividend and Youth Employment, held at UN Headquarters in New York on June 1st.
Much the world is poised experience a demographic dividend – the economic growth that can occur when a population shifts from one with many dependents and comparatively few working-age people to one of many working-age people with fewer dependents. Demographic dividends have helped produce unprecedented economic growth in several East Asian countries. The Republic of Korea, for example, saw its per-capita gross domestic product grow about 2,200 per cent between 1950 and 2008.
But, as Egypt’s Minister of Population Dr. Hala Youssef told the policymakers and leaders present, “The demographic dividend is not automatic… It is a window of opportunity.”
Igniting the potential of 1.8 billion
To realize the dividend, countries must invest in the empowerment, education and employment of their young people. There are 1.8 billion young people in the world today, representing a staggering amount of human potential. Yet too many of them are trapped in poverty, with few opportunities to learn or to earn a decent living.
“We all appreciate the massive waste of human capital in our world when 74 million young people cannot find work,” said Mr. Ban.
Young people are hungry for better options. “They are rejecting the status quo and demanding a better future. Many of them are claiming their right to a decent living, and they are willing to take risks to do so. We have seen in recent times the high numbers of young people taking risks around the Mediterranean, trying to reach a better life,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA.
But if these youth are allowed to realize their full potential, developing countries could see huge economic gains.
“The more young people grow into well-educated adults with fewer dependants and new opportunities to acquire wealth, savings and purchasing power, the more they will be able to accelerate economic growth and development,” said Sam K. Kutesa, President of the 69th Session of the General Assembly, who convened the high-level event with support from UNFPA and the International Labour Organization.
“It is estimated the African continent could add up to about $500 billion per year to its economy for as many as 30 years,” Mr. Kutesa added.
Steps towards a better future
There are clear steps that can help countries achieve a demographic dividend.
Increasing investment in young people is key. This includes promoting quality education that prepares them for future opportunities. A “diversity of training will be needed – from quality primary and secondary schools to technical training, to two-year colleges and to research-intensive universities,” said Dr. Osotimehin.
Also essential is “empowering women and girls, and ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and human rights,” he noted. “This would enable them to determine when and whom to marry and the number of their children.” When women and girls are able to make these decisions, they are better able to complete their educations and pursue jobs.
Countries must also increase employment opportunities for young people. Daniel Johnson, Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture of the Bahamas, stressed this point. “Many young people will be forced to sit on margins of society, waiting on the train track for a train that may never come,” he said, referring to the lack of employment options available in many communities.
There is also a critical need to involve young people in decisions that will affect them. “We cannot talk about sustainable development without the active involvement of youth,” Mr. Ban said, adding: “When we give young people decent jobs, political weight, negotiating muscle, and real influence in our world, they will create a better future.”
“Let us take these ideas forward to harness the demographic dividend, holding human rights, gender equality, human capital, and dignity at the center of all our investments,” Dr. Osotimehin said at the close of the event. “Only by ensuring opportunities that open the future to all young people do we create a better future.”
Image: Students in Cotonou, Benin. © UNFPA Benin/Ollivier Girard