Youth in Revolt

Article excerpt

Byline: Gordon Brown

Why protests in India and Pakistan herald a trend.

The new year has begun--just as 2012 ended--with young people on the march. Literally. This week it is young Indians, shocked by the murder of a medical student, who dominate the street rallies that are demanding proper protection for women against rape. A few weeks before, it was thousands of young Pakistanis who responded to the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, forming the majority in the mass protests calling for an end to the discrimination that locks girls out of school.

Defying doom-laden forecasts that social progress is not possible in today's fragile world economy, 2013 is likely to be marked by a rising number of demonstrations for young people and by young people--demanding that their rights be taken seriously and opportunity be delivered.

For these recent assertions of their rights by young people in Pakistan and India are not isolated incidents but part of a new wave of change. In Bangladesh, would-be teenage brides and teenage boys are now, for the first time, leading grassroots campaigns to declare their communities "child marriage-free zones." Even before the Indian rape, Nepal had been witnessing widespread demonstrations condemning violence against women. In Burma, a campaign against child trafficking brought 200,000 young people to that country's first open-air pop concert of modern times. And again in India, a march against child labor was led by 100 boys and girls who, at ages as young as 8, 9, and 10, had been rescued from bonded labor.

Of course, the outrages we have witnessed in India and Pakistan would certainly have evoked an angry response at any time--but, left to adults alone, the protests would almost certainly have come and gone, to be filed in the category of one more terrible rape, one more awful shooting, one more disgraceful act of violence against girls.

What is new is that today's generation of young people have themselves become far more assertive in demanding that their rights be upheld than the adults who are responsible for watching over them.

If the years 2010 and 2011 signaled the start of a rights revolution led by young adults in the Middle East and North Africa, in the years 2012 and now 2013 the rights of even younger girls and boys are being thrust on to the agenda by teenagers themselves. After decades of adult complacency dominated by a false assumption that progress to end child exploitation--whether it be child labor, forced marriage, or discrimination against girls--was only a matter of time and somehow inexorable, it is the victims of the world's inaction who are forcing the world to wake up to the reality that change will only happen if it is made to happen.

And, fortunately, there is no sign of this demand for change abating in 2013. Late last year, more than 2 million signed petitions calling for free universal education in Pakistan, not least because of the campaigning genius and technology of the activist group Avaaz, which rallied the international community in response to Malala's shooting. But in the first few days of 2013, 1 million Pakistani girls and boys who have themselves been denied education have been signing an updated petition demanding urgent action on their behalf to deliver basic schooling. An anti-child-labor petition, also supported by Avaaz, calling on India to end child slavery has already attracted 600,000 signatures--mainly from young people themselves. The organizations V-Day and One Billion Rising have called for young women in Africa and Asia to rise up on Feb. 14 and be part of what they call "a catalytic moment" to demand an end to violence against females. Young women in Africa, from Kenya to Somalia to Ghana, are planning what, for thousands, will be their first-ever major demonstrations against rape and violence.

And, as a result of this growing and insistent pressure from young people, long-delayed, long-overdue change is starting to happen. …