While young people have traditionally been absent in policy decision-making, sixty youth from across Southeast Asia and Australia have set their sights on what they want from the future of our region, publishing a set of 29 recommendations on Balancing Diversity, Green Recovery and Emerging Economies. Why take note? These Millennials and Generation Zs will soon outnumber the older population to become future leaders. Already, over half of ASEAN’s population is under 35, equating to 380 million youth.
Young people are more socially conscious, aware of problems such as racial justice and gender diversity, and are more environmentally responsible. With the boom of digitalization, young people are taking action to drive the change they want to see in the world.
In the wake of COVID-19, the new generation has been upended: from the changing nature of work to mental health and climate change. As discussions around the pathway to recovery from the pandemic form concretely in 2022, it’s become more important than ever that the youth of the region are involved in discussions at every level and in every sector.
The ASEAN-Australian Strategic Youth Partnership (AASYP) spurs young people across ASEAN and Australia to engage with each other about the most pressing issues of today. Digital Dialogues is one of AASYP’s prominent forums for regional future leaders to voice their perspectives on issues faced by ASEAN countries and Australia, develop policy-making skills, and build people-to-people networks with others. An all-star cohort of 60 young delegates crafted a policy report on a pathway to recovery from COVID-19. The report discusses three central issues to COVID-19 recovery: Balancing Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.
The report is a helpful source of information in preparation for the Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework Engagement (UNSDCF) in the 2022-2027 period.
Gender discrepancies in education
Gender inequality remains a wicked problem that counteracts development in our region. Our norms teach us that men are expected to be successful and capable of providing for their families, while women are supposed to play a supporting role in family life. Across ASEAN and Australia, some communities remain divided along the lines of gender, which limits opportunities across various sectors of life — education, workplaces, media representation, home, and security — at both national and personal levels.
According to Le Thanh Hang, Executive Director of the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment, women and girls in Vietnam are subject to double standards. “Our society expects women to be perfect homemakers without much support from their partners in housework and childcare. At the same time, women need to earn bread for their families since many households will struggle to live on one income.”
Region-wide, delegates in the AASYP Digital Dialogues found that many girls in ASEAN are forced to enter the workforce at a very young age and work in underpaid and undervalued jobs such as domestic workers to support themselves and their families. Consequently, this reduces their opportunity to continue higher education.
AASYP youth also identified a lack of infrastructure and shortage of teachers in rural areas in ASEAN and Australia, which exacerbates the challenges that girls and women face in attaining quality education. Social, cultural values and stereotypes may be reinforced in schools, which leads to further disparities in educational outcomes.
With these discrepancies in place, young women face barriers to financial independence. They may have to rely on their family or husbands to handle their finances and not have control of their futures or their bodies. They miss out on opportunities to work in well-paying roles if their educational background is limited.
Lack of mental and physical support
There is a critical lack of inclusive and effective mental health services across the region. Low societal awareness around the importance of mental health, disparities in access to mental health services and a lack of culturally competent care, especially in rural and regional communities are key problems. In Vietnam, mental illness has long been stigmatized and thus, having conversations about these issues is harder than ever.
Aside from mental health, AASYP delegates highlight insufficient access and awareness about reproductive and sexual healthcare across the region. Despite the fact that universal access to sexual and reproductive health is a basic human right, only 60% of Southeast Asian women have access to contraceptives.
In Vietnam, young people are particularly vulnerable. 30% of women lack modern contraceptives, and eleven girls in every thousand give birth as a teen, according to a report by UNFPA Vietnam. They lack adequate and comprehensive information and services, and the situation is accentuated among ethnic minorities.
The barriers to ensuring full access to reproductive and sexual healthcare also stem from the gaps in adequate infrastructure. This includes clinics and health service providers in rural areas, as well as the stigma and stereotypes for women seeking reproductive and sexual health services. Women and their children need safe spaces—including in rural and remote areas—to receive quality support against gender-based violence.
Striving for a balance of diversity
Gender equality is not a marginal issue, but the core to the quality, permanent progress of Vietnam's socio-economic development. The benefits that arise through bridging gender gaps seep into communities, regions and across borders. Establishing gender equality in society has reduced violence against women, created cohesive and accepting communities, and increased economic productivity.
With that in mind, young leaders across the region have put forward key solutions and recommendations on the issues above.
Achieving a more gendered balance in education requires a commitment to inclusive, accessible, and quality education. Educators and education providers should take a more active role in creating an environment that fosters gender sensitivity through teaching methods.
For instance, we need an increase in quality sexual education through training for educators and a curriculum centered on sexual and reproductive health, as well as consent and contraception. This can be conducted within school education programs, focusing on greater engagement with male students on these issues. By doing so, not only are we empowering women’s self-esteem and their ability to make choices, but also recognizing the need for men to participate in the progress of gender equality.
Both government and non-governmental organizations must collaborate to create forums on the importance and benefits of inclusive education in schools and surrounding communities. It’s high time to achieve real change in gender equality, equal education, and access to mental and reproductive care for all.