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Young people are facing an unprecedented crisis unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic, but they are also acting on an extraordinary scale to respond to these troubled times. Putting youth at the centre of Covid-19 resilience and recovery plan can be the most cost-effective solution to the long-term social, economic and health problems that their generation may experience most profoundly.

Where is the youth in policy making?

With the world battling the COVID-19 crisis, the youth of Bangladesh have stepped up along with the frontliners. Bidyanondo Foundation is one such youth-led organisation, which has been one of the first responders to actively help the community in this crisis. They have been disinfecting several areas and hospitals across the country, providing food, medical supplies, financial assistance and other support to the doctors, police and other frontliners, people residing in remote areas, victims of the Amphan cyclone, orphans, etc.

Like Bidyanondo Foundation, many other youth-led organisations are coming forward through different interventions, whether they have been in the limelight or not. While all these initiatives are noteworthy, they are also a reminder of the country’s setback in carving out an inclusive space for youth from different strata of the society to come together and have a say in decision-making. Moreover, given that the country has been experiencing a demographic dividend for over a decade, we would have been able to reap optimal benefits by now if inclusive policies were in place. If the youth are not included in policies and decision-making, we will be unaware of their needs. Also, the active youth population that is trying to bring change will be left ignored.

Umama Zillur, Founder, Kotha, and Research Associate, Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), shares, “With such a huge population of young people in our country right now, ‘demographic dividend’ has become a common term thrown around in policy circles. Often times, the extent of youth involvement is limited to providing knowledge input with a minimal role to play in determining policy priorities, etc. We have to allow the youth to be critical players in designing programmes, especially those that concern their peers.

“Besides, in the post-COVID-19 world, it would be more important to acknowledge that the youth population is not monolithic; there are unique vulnerabilities within the broader category of youth. The needs of women, girls and gender diverse youth must be addressed in multiple dimensions – health, education, employment, etc. – as they will be significantly worse off otherwise,”she adds.

A recent study titled “Representation of Young People in the Local Government (Union Parishad), National Parliament and Political Parties in Bangladesh: Challenges, Opportunities and Way Forward” by ActionAid Bangladesh and Global Research & Marketing (GRM), conducted in five districts across the country among youth aged 15 to 35 years, has identified key reasons as to why the youth are unable to participate fully in the country’s decision-making structures in local government institutions, national parliament, and the four major political parties. The challenges include poverty, illiteracy and health concerns; gender biases and religious conservatism, especially towards women; lack of skills development and capacity-building opportunities; hopelessness due to political corruption, killings, nepotism, violence; lack of proper implementation of Right to Information Act, etc. Moreover, young people feel frustrated that even though the political leaders in their communities let them share their opinions sometimes, these are rarely considered while making the final decisions. Although the National Youth Policy-2017 states that the youth will have to be involved in the decision-making process at local, national and international levels, it does not mention the way towards youth representation.

The national parliament itself lacks reserved seats for the youth. Lack of democratic practice in political parties also creates a barrier for the youth to understand politics and be hopeful. Besides, there is a dire need to increase women’s participation, especially young women’s participation, in politics. For instance, the percentage of women elected in the parliament was less than eight percent in the 11th National Parliamentary Election held in December 2018.

Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) shares, “There is a prevailing notion in our country that policy is not a focal point for the youth. Both the decision-makers and the receivers bear this ideology, which makes it extremely difficult for the youth to get involved in policy interventions and decisions. Consequently, the youth-led initiatives, especially during the COVID-19 situation, are not getting as much support as they would have if the right policies were in place.”

He adds, “More allocation should be made for projects such as e-business development, establishment of BSCIC industrial parks, API industrial estates, etc. The Finance Minister should prepare a 'Youth Budget' and highlight it in the national parliament while presenting the national budget. All kinds of local government public representative bodies should make it mandatory to include positions for youth representatives. These elected youth representatives should have specific job responsibilities concerning youth development at the local level. Besides, Youth Development Council can be established under the Youth Organisations (Registration and Management) Act 2015 to help set up a National Youth Parliament in the country. Youth leaders can be established starting from Union Parishads.”

He further emphasises upon creating youth leaders in other sectors and concerns related to the academia, culture, sports and religious organisations, transgender rights, marginalised groups, women’s empowerment, etc., and stressed on the need for youth-led initiatives which can better address issues of the segment of the youth population involved in crimes, radicalisation, addiction, etc., compared to traditional means and instruments.

Infographics on youth involvement in decision-making and policy interventions:

Infographics 1

Figure: What should be mostly emphasised in the 8th Five Year Plan?

Source: Study on youth aspirations in the upcoming 8th Five-Year Plan, conducted by Center for Men and Masculinities Studies and supported by ActionAid Bangladesh.

Infographics 1

Figure: Political participation of youth

Source: Study on youth aspirations in the upcoming 8th Five-Year Plan, conducted by Center for Men and Masculinities Studies and supported by ActionAid Bangladesh.

Woes of young mothers during coronavirus pandemic

Seven-month-pregnant Dil Afrose Jahan finds it difficult to seek antenatal care in the maternity clinics amidst the pandemic. Jahan had to battle through an army of panicked patients, who were not maintaining social distancing, as prescribed by the government. How would she keep herself and her baby safe from the virus?

Traveling to and from hospitals for routine check-ups became a hassle and so the 27-year-old woman decided to receive alternative antenatal care at home. She opted for phone consultation with her gynecologist.

“I also read articles related to pregnancy on the internet. This helps me understand the constant change in my body and the need to eat healthy,” said Jahan.

Young educated pregnant women like Jahan are opting for telemedicine and other remote consultations via various online and social media platforms that are helping to address the need for maternal healthcare amidst this pandemic.

Prof Laila Arjumand Banu, president of Bangladesh Perinatal Society (BPS), opines that phone consultation or video conferencing between pregnant women and doctors show a positive step. The less they go out, the better for them. Other than situations where things like ultrasonography are needed when women need to be physically present in hospitals, minor virtual consultations reduce health risks.

However, Jahan is constantly worried that both she and her newborn might contract the virus since she needs to deliver her baby in a hospital.

The situation is worse for those who have limited access to virtual healthcare solutions. They are largely dependent on local maternal health care service centres which are also going through tough times due to disruptions in medical supply chains and straining financial and human resources.

Joby George, the Chief of Party of USAID's MaMoni Maternal and Newborn Care Strengthening Project, shares that the declining trends in the utilisation of maternal health care services since the start of the epidemic are concerning. The shifting attention of the health systems to respond to the pandemic, restrictions in travel, economic hardships, and the fear of contracting the infection from health care facilities are preventing many mothers from seeking the much-needed care during pregnancy, he adds.

Seeking anonymity, a staff from Maa O Shishu Shastho Seba Kendro in Rampura told The Daily Star that since mid-March, the clinic has not been providing antenatal or postnatal services to pregnant women since gynecologists are reluctant to attend the clinic amidst this crisis.

“The clinic is run by Dhaka North City Corporation and the doctors have not been provided with enough protective gear and transport facilities,” says the staff of the clinic. With the surge of the coronavirus, nine staff members including pediatricians in the clinic have stopped giving services to pregnant women and deliver babies.

“We receive four to five calls daily from pregnant women who want to avail services, but we have to turn them down,” shares the staff of Maa O Shishu Shastho Seba Kendro.

Brig. Gen. Mohammad Mominur Rahman Mamun, Chief Health Officer, DNCC, says, “We are aware that there are a few staff members in the maternal healthcare centres who have shown an unwillingness to perform their duties. However, the authorities are encouraging them to come to the hospital for emergency cases.”

“We have also provided them with protective gears since they have to be in close contact with patients,” he says, adding that there should be more protective suits for healthcare front-liners so that doctors feel safe to perform their duties and pregnant women can have safe deliveries.

Considering the dire situation of pregnant women, Prof Sameena Chowdhury, president of Obstetrics and Gynecology (OGBS), says: “Pregnant women are the most vulnerable in the ongoing pandemic. Many women are not availing regular routine checkups which can lead to complications during childbirth. Before delivering a baby, a pregnant woman needs to go for a COVID-19 test, but the result will come after a couple of days. In case of an emergency, a mother will be at high risk when delivering a baby.”

“We are emphasising upon family planning and counselling young women not to conceive during the pandemic. But the pregnancy rate has been increasing drastically. This is because females are not attending hospitals for family planning leading to increased unintended pregnancies,” she shares.

While our health system has to give much of its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic response, we must maintain routine essential maternal healthcare services which have equally important consequences for children and women, Prof Sameena concludes.

Is there hope for youth employment in the post-COVID-19 world?

Most of us are unable to work in this [COVID-19] situation for our own safety. Business is running slow, leading to salary cuts,” shares Alan Nigel Halder, 21, currently working at a popular cafe in Dhaka. “If this continues much longer, it will be difficult to finance my expenses,” he adds.

Around 8.7 million Bangladeshi youths will be pushed into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by the South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM).

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also paints a horrific picture of youth employment worldwide, stating that more than one in six youths are without work since the arrival of COVID-19.

“More than one-quarter of Bangladeshi youth are Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET),” states Kishore Kumar Singh, Chief Technical Adviser, Skills 21 Project, ILO Bangladesh. He adds, “It is important that the government, development partners, the private sector and civil society come together to develop an effective COVID-19 response plan for youth employment via a comprehensive, sector-wide approach.

“We are being accelerated into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (an era of fast-tracked technological progress and innovations) since learning and working remotely is now the only sustainable model. Businesses are adopting virtual meetings and cloud-based tools at a rapid pace. Many ‘new-collar’ – a mix of ‘white-collar’ and ‘blue-collar’ – jobs will be needed in this growing marketplace. Apart from soft skills such as leadership, innovation and critical thinking, a range of digital technology-related programming skills will also be in high demand.

“Since new-collar workers are not required to have extensive formal education or experience, the youth can prepare for these new-collar jobs by obtaining the digital skills needed to run automation and software, analyse data, carry out cloud computer maintenance, etc., from vocational schools and training programmes.”

All skills development programmes must follow the nationally recognised competency standards approved by Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) under the National Training and Vocational Qualifications Framework (NTVQF). Kishore Kumar Singh mentions, “The skills system in Bangladesh needs to speed up its plan for digital technology-enabled learning through intensive engagement and investment with the involvement of key industries. The fast adoption of e-learning and virtual training hubs is also critical.” Developing apprenticeship systems and dual training systems as well as skills institute-industry partnerships, up-to-date job portals through enhanced private sector engagement, “virtual” job fairs, etc., are crucial steps required at this time.

Addressing these growing rates of youth unemployment in Bangladesh, Tasmiah T Rahman, Head of Strategy and Business Development, Skills Development, BRAC, suggests: “There should be stipends for unemployed youths which they can claim every month by showing evidence of being laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.”

She further shares that youth employment will continue to be adversely affected in the foreseeable future. However, as we move towards this “new normal,” there will be shifts in the job market demand that could also lead to increased opportunities in some sectors. According to Tasmiah T Rahman, these sectors include healthcare, ICT-enabled services, manufacturing, construction and light engineering, and Micro, Small & Medium Enterprise (MSME) development.

“At BRAC, we are shifting to a blended learning approach where we are assessing which theoretical and soft skills training programmes can be shifted online, but there is no alternative to face-to-face training in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). Projects where teachers and students are given training on how to shift to this blended approach are required. There is also a need for evidence which can support the fact that this approach will be effective,” adds Tasmiah T Rahman.

Upashana Salam, Manager-Marketing and Communications, Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre (BYLC), shares how BYLC is adapting to the shifting market of skills in demand: “We are taking a holistic approach, emphasising on several areas to support the youth of Bangladesh. We are conducting live sessions focusing on a range of issues that affect young people, including mental health, entrepreneurship, professional development, and practising leadership in times of crisis. We are partnering with organisations and conducting surveys to understand employers' recruitment requirements in terms of emerging skillset needs. Moreover, we are offering training and mentoring for career development and have an online academy, BYLCx, where courses will be provided for free until 2021.”

There is no denying that rebuilding the economy in a post-COVID-19 world will not be possible if the talent of Bangladeshi youths is side-lined by a lack of employment or skills development opportunities. First of all, there should be an immediate response to support the young people who have lost their employment due to coronavirus pandemic. Decent work opportunities need to be created for them. At the same time, we need to devise policies to continue improving skills development during and after the pandemic as part of the effort to build ready-to-work, skillful generation of Bangladesh. The existing skills development programmes will also have to undergo major changes to adopt to shifting job market demands. Finally, all the relevant stakeholders including youth representatives, the government, development partners, private sector and civil society should come together to develop a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan for youth employment and skill development in Bangladesh.

Youths on the frontline of COVID-19

Bangladesh enforced lockdowns within weeks of the first case of COVID-19 being reported in the country. As the lockdowns brought additional sufferings for a lot of people, the youth of the country decided to join the frontlines.

A few students from the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka, took an initiative to deliver food packages, bought with their own funds, to the marginalised communities affected severely by the lockdown. This initiative was met with positive responses with more people showing interest to help out. And, with this, Pashe Achi Initiative was formed.

Pashe Achi began work by sending aid to 100 people a day with a goal to help at least 5,000 people. Slowly, as donations from other people also started pouring in, the group was able to extend their activities. Zaima Hamid Zoa, a volunteer of this organisation, shares, “We began with the goal of helping people any way possible. An owner of a dairy farm was having trouble selling milk. If it were not sold on time, the milk would have gone sour. So, we decided to buy the milk and give it to street kids. We also helped out another poultry farm owner in a similar way.”

Anika Ahsan, co-founder and volunteer of Pashe Achi initiative, adds, “My lesson from this journey is that it just takes a moment of good intent and another moment of prompt action for a brilliant idea to materialise.”

Pashe Achi’s latest initiative, Project Granthamangal, aims to help revive the business of the Nilkhet bookshop owners. They buy books from these poor entrepreneurs and sell them to avid readers who have limited access to books due to the pandemic. Any profit that is made again goes back to helping those in need. This project is a success with all the books getting sold out within hours. They have sold around 2,000 books till June 12 and helped 20 booksellers of Nilkhet.

Another youth-led organisation, Moner Bondhu, is a counselling platform providing mental health services. They realised the effects a pandemic can have on a person’s mind and were quick to shift all their services online by the second week of March. Since this lockdown, their counselling services have reached more than 2,000 people in 20 districts across the country. They have also worked tirelessly to bring awareness towards mental health issues that may arise due to staying at home all day, through campaigns concerning anxiety, sleep disorders, panic attacks, etc. Monthly feedback surveys were also conducted during the pandemic and around 99 percent of the customers gave positive feedback.

“The biggest challenge for us has been to gain the public’s trust regarding online counselling. The people in our country are not used to this. We tried to patiently answer all their queries and fortunately after receiving the counselling, they started to see the merit of the online sessions,” shares Tawhida Shiropa, CEO, Moner Bondhu.

GARBAGEMAN is another organisation trying to make way for a cleaner Dhaka. They used to provide sustainable waste management services to reduce disposals at landfill sites. In the wake of the pandemic, they shifted their focus to the safety of the waste collectors. GARBAGEMAN has successfully distributed food, PPE kits, and training to 400 waste collectors, covering areas in Uttara, Tejgaon, and Dhakhinkhan. Each package consisted of goggles, gloves, boots, and food. So far, they have connected around 35-50 enthusiasts with their recyclable collection service and are currently in conversation with 16 municipalities outside of Dhaka to distribute safety kits and provide training to 2,200 waste collectors.

The above-mentioned youth organisations together with other youth-led initiatives have been able to provide massive support for the community but continuing their work during a pandemic has not been easy. There is a risk factor for them as well as for their families, given that they are not being able to stay indoors all the time. Therefore, ensuring proper safety of volunteers is a huge concern. Encouraging young activists to follow the guidelines of organisations such as World Health Organization (WHO), Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), is of paramount importance.

With the right support and more inclusive policies from the government, the youth organisations can form an integral part of our community’s recovery and help us tackle the challenges of the current and post-COVID era with more creative initiatives.

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