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Young people shaping the global agenda

no picture Hyunjeong Lee
Member since May 15, 2014
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Young people from marginalized and disadvantaged groups often experience exclusion and disrespect. To ensure the rights of young people, society must respect and be inclusive of all, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnic origin, religion, disability or age.

Jeremy (Xa Tấn Chương), is a 20-year-old Vietnamese youth delegate to the World Conference on Youth 2014. He is currently studying Business English in Ho Chi Minh City, where he also works as a Youth Ambassador for the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Jeremy shared his thoughts on diversity and inclusion with me.

Jeremy believes that, although Viet Nam has made progress, young people are not fully aware that different groups exist in society. “How would you feel if the world consisted of only black and white colors?” he asked. “It would be very boring. We need a variety of people to complete a whole picture.”

We discussed some of the issues and challenges that minorities experience in Vietnam. “In my country, there are about 60 ethnic minorities who live in mountainous areas,” Jeremy said. “However, many ethnic minorities do not have access to education. Another issue is language. They speak their own languages, but Vietnam has only one official national language. I strongly feel the need for inclusive policies for these children.”

I asked Jeremy what he thought some of those inclusive policies should be. “For example, hiring local teachers who understand students’ language and culture,” he replied. “These ethnic teachers also need to be given training opportunities or financial support.”

As a long-term volunteer at a local LGBT program, Jeremy was very eager to share his view on issues that sexual minorities face. According to Jeremy, 20 years ago, terms like LGBT or homosexual did not exist in Viet Nam. “We used a French word, pédé, to refer to these people. It simply means gay. Many Vietnamese still think that these people are mentally ill or can be cured,” he said.

“When I was young, I thought just like them,” Jeremy continued. “However, as I learned about LGBT communities, I realized that what I had been told was so wrong.” He now believes that educating young people is key to changing society.

To make society more tolerant and inclusive, Jeremy believes that marginalized groups must be given more opportunities to voice their concerns. “I want the government to be more proactive in protecting minorities’ rights. I want to see at least one person from all marginalized groups represented in parliament. That way, they can deliver a strong, unified voice from their communities,” he explained.

Year of opportunity

The year 2015 is significant not only for UNICEF and our work, but also for young people themselves. It marks the start of a new set of development goals for the UN, and is an opportunity to include youth in shaping the agenda. Young people make up one quarter of the world's population, so it is crucial that we invest in their future. However, many of them are still struggling against injustice and unequal opportunities, even as I write this article.

The stories of Marina, Yang and Jeremy that I heard this week have taught me an invaluable lesson: the only way to help young people is to listen to them and work with them. We need to recognize young people as an asset of society and partners in our work, not just recipients of services, because they are equally ready to contribute.

Jeremy shared his final thoughts with me: “This interview reminds me that young people have to overcome many social barriers. But I do not want to be pessimistic, because we are young, energetic and have the willpower to challenge and learn from society. We can be an inspiration for both younger and older generations. I am confident that we will make positive changes soon.”

The author
Hyunjeong Lee is an education consultant on adolescent development and participation at UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific

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