Background Release

27 July 2001


Meeting Will Identify New Opportunities for Empowering Youth

NEW YORK, 27 July -- "Empowering Youth for Action" will be the theme of the fourth session of the World Youth Forum of the United Nations system. The global meeting, which is being convened by the United Nations in partnership with the Senegalese National Youth Council, will be held in Dakar, Senegal, from 6 to 10 August. Over 300 delegates from youth organizations from around the world will meet with representatives of the United Nations system and other intergovernmental organizations to draw the world's attention to youth empowerment issues and challenges of the twenty-first century.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described the World Youth Forum as "a splendid example of young people coming together to work out their own agenda, without waiting for governments to tell them what to do." The Forum is expected to adopt the Dakar Youth Empowerment Strategy, which will include concrete recommendations, strategies and tools to empower young people to participate in decision-making and in evaluation of policies and programmes on key youth issues, in order to ensure action at the local, national, regional and international levels.

The Secretary-General emphasized the importance of empowering young men and women in his report to the Millennium Summit (New York, 6-8 September 2000) entitled "We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the Twenty-First Century". In that report, he stated that "Young people are a source of creativity, energy and initiative, of dynamism and social renewal. They learn quickly and adapt readily. Given the chance to go to school and find work, they will contribute hugely to economic development and social progress. When we fail to give them these opportunities, at best we would be complicit in an unforgivable waste of human potential. At worst, we would be contributing to all the evils of youth without hope: loss of morale, and lives that are socially unproductive and potentially destructive -– of the individuals themselves, their communities and even fragile democracies."

The World Youth Forum serves as a channel of communication between youth organizations and United Nations bodies and agencies. "The timing of this event could not have been better," says John Langmore, Director of the United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development. "The World Youth Forum is expected to be an important voice of youth to the United Nations General Assembly special session on children, which will take place in New York from 19 to 21 September, to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in Durban, South Africa, 31 August to 7 September, and also to the 56th session of the General Assembly and its discussions in October on a draft resolution on youth issues in the Assembly’s Third Committee," states Mr. Langmore.

Thematic Working Groups

"The World Youth Forum is a unique event for the United Nations," says Joop Theunissen, of the Division's Youth Unit, which is organizing the event. "Not only do we have a large number of United Nations agencies taking part in the preparations, we also have a select yet comprehensive group of youth organizations involved in the preparatory process." For example, the 10 working groups which have been set up dealing with important youth issues such as health, education, and drug abuse are being convened together by a United Nations agency and a youth non-governmental organization (NGO) selected by a preparatory committee. The working groups will carry out an assessment of progress made in implementing the World Programme of Youth to the Year 2000 and Beyond, as well as other relevant programmes of action. Participants will also identify new opportunities for empowering youth and for implementing these programmes of action at the local, national and regional levels.

Forum Theme No. 1: Education and Information and Communications Technology

In spite of progress towards universal basic education, the number of illiterate people continues to grow. Many developing countries have fallen short of universal primary education. Girls continue to constitute the majority of people whose access to education is limited due to a number of factors, including customary attitudes, early marriages, lack of adequate school facilities, and gender inequalities in society at large as well as in the family. Given its different speed of diffusion in wealthy and poor countries, the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution is resulting in a widening global "digital divide". With increasing globalization, youth are being affected by the new ICT, including the Internet and the influence of media.

Forum Theme No. 2: Employment

Unemployment creates a wide range of social ills, and young people are particularly susceptible to its damaging effects. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), over 70 million young men and women today are looking for work. Youth unemployment is expected to continue growing for the next 50 years, underlining the urgency of a forward-looking strategy to create employment for young people. The ILO estimates that, almost everywhere, unemployment rates among young workers are at least twice as high as the adult average.

Forum Theme No. 3: Health and Population

Health problems of young people include the lack of safe and sanitary living environments; the risk of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases; the growing consumption of tobacco, alcohol and drugs; and unwarranted risk-taking and destructive activities. In many countries, there is a lack of information and services available to adolescents to help them understand their sexuality. Young women are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of unprotected and premature sexual relations which might lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections. "Youth-friendly health services" are important in addressing the specific needs of young women and men.

Forum Theme No. 4: Hunger, Poverty and Debt

Poverty, which is inseparably linked to lack of access to or control over resources, including land, skills, knowledge, capital and social connections, is one of the main obstacles to the empowerment and participation of young people. Hunger and malnutrition remain among the most serious and intractable threats to humanity, often preventing youth from taking part in society. Millions of young people are negatively affected by the external debt crisis in some developing countries, as well as by structural adjustment programmes which are inadequately attentive to the importance of social factors, and by trade imbalances between developed and developing economies.

Forum Theme No. 5: Environment and Human Settlements

The deterioration of the natural environment is one of the principal concerns of young people worldwide, as it has direct implications for their well-being now and in the future. A factor critical to the implementation of policies of sustainable development is the involvement of youth in environment and development decision-making. The contributions of young women and men are an important factor in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda, the action plan of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), held in Istanbul, Turkey from 3-14 June 1996.

Forum Theme No. 6: Social Integration

The capacity of each society to progress is based, among other elements, on its capacity to incorporate the contribution and responsibility of youth into the building and designing of its future. Youth participation not only provides opportunities for growth and learning for young persons; it also contributes in real ways towards the development of the societies in which they live. It is important to develop mechanisms for bridging the gap between generations, to create "A society for all ages".

Forum Theme No. 7: Culture and Peace

Young people are disproportionately affected by war and violent conflicts, both as victims when homes and communities are broken and as actual participants in the fighting. Youth organizations have a special role to play in the promotion of peace and in conflict resolution. Dialogue and partnership with young people and their organizations is an important element in the preservation of cultural heritage.

Forum Theme No. 8: Youth Policy, Participation and Rights

The right to development is an essential component of the youth development process and is directly related to the right to education, employment and health. But in many parts of the world, young people are not a high priority -- leaders are too often preoccupied with strife, war, and unsustainable debt burdens to make much of an investment in their future. In certain instances, young people's rights are violated when they are conscripted into premature "employment" as labourers, drug traffickers, and even soldiers. Effective youth policies and programmes which promote the full participation of all young men and women, including the more vulnerable groups, can prevent young persons from getting trapped in circles of exclusion. Young women and men who live and/or work in the streets, young people in conflict situations and young people who are affected by drugs or crime are among the many groups who need special attention.

Forum Theme No. 9: Young Women and Girls

In many countries, women face discrimination from the early stages of life, through childhood and into adulthood due, among other factors, to the resistance stemming from traditional attitudes and practices, such as son preference, early marriage, female genital mutilation and gender violence. Owing to such discrimination, girls often receive limited opportunities for education and consequently lack the knowledge and skills which are needed to advance their status in society. The Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) identified discrimination against the girl child as one of the 12 critical areas of concern requiring urgent attention by governments and the international community. In spite of progress made since the Beijing Conference, many obstacles still remain to gender equality, the absence of which jeopardizes not only girls’ and women’s empowerment, but also the empowerment of all humanity.

Forum Theme No. 10: Youth, Sports and Leisure-time Activities

All societies recognize the importance of leisure-time activities in the psychological, cognitive and physical development of young people. Appropriate leisure programmes for youth, including games, sports, cultural events, entertainment and community service are elements of efforts aimed at fighting social ills, such as drug abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Forum’s Link to World Programme of Action for Youth

In 1995, on the tenth anniversary of International Youth Year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the World Programme of Action for Youth to the Year 2000 and Beyond, an international strategy to address the problems of young people and to increase opportunities for their participation in society. The World Programme of Action is comprehensive because it defines 10 priority areas of concern to youth and for youth: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, and full and effective participation of youth in the life of society and in decision-making. The document provides a blueprint for action, and sets out goals to be implemented at the national, regional, and international levels. It remains the mandate for the work on youth for the United Nations.

The World Programme of Action called for two global youth meetings to be convened:

-- A World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, to meet regularly under the aegis of the United Nations. The first such Conference (Lisbon, 8-12 August 1998) was convened by the Government of Portugal, in cooperation with the United Nations, to focus on the implementation of the World Programme of Action. It did so by adopting the Lisbon Declaration on Youth and recommendations for initiatives at the national, regional and international levels.

-- A World Youth Forum of the United Nations System, which could contribute to realizing the World Programme of Action by promoting joint initiatives. The Programme states that effective channels of communication between non-governmental youth organizations and the United Nations system are essential for dialogue and consultation on the situation of youth and implications for its implementation. Three sessions of the World Youth Forum of the United Nations system have been convened (in Vienna, Austria, in 1991 and 1996, and in Braga, Portugal, in 1998). The fourth session of the Forum, in Dakar in August, will be the first to be held in a developing country.

Regional Preparations

To prepare for the World Youth Forum in Dakar, a number of regional meetings have taken place:

-- On the occasion of its extraordinary General Assembly session, on 5 and

6 April 2001, the European Youth Forum discussed a common position for the World Youth Forum.

-- An African Youth Forum, organized by the Economic Commission for Africa and the United Nations Youth Unit in Addis Ababa from 10 to 14 April 2000, adopted an African Youth Declaration.

-- Panama was the venue for the Latin American Youth Forum (FLAJ), which was organized by FLAJ and the United Nations Youth Unit from 17 to 19 July 2000.

-- Regional preparations in the Caribbean were planned in collaboration with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Caribbean Federation of Youth in May and June 2001.

-- The Asia Pacific Youth Forum was held from 3 to 8 June 2001 in Bangkok, Thailand, in conjunction with the Third Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on Human Resources Development for Youth.

-- The Arab Youth Forum of the United Nations System was held from 26 to 27 June 2001 in Beirut.

What is Empowerment?

The concept of empowerment includes participation, rights and responsibilities, capacity building and/or social integration. Youth empowerment involves handing power to young people as individuals, youth organizations, communities, nations, and international actors so that they can have the opportunity to make decisions that affect their lives and well-being. Many countries have formulated strategies, policies, programmes and projects for young people. Yet despite those efforts, the situation of youth is still characterized by problems that make life difficult for them and hinder their participation in society. In industrialized and developing countries, young people are living at a time when profound economic, political, social, cultural and environmental changes are occurring, resulting in both opportunities and constraints.

There are also positive trends. Many countries are experiencing a deepening of democracy and are putting mechanisms in place to increase and enhance the participation of their citizens. This is opening up opportunities for participation of all people, including youth, who have been contributing to the democratic process in many countries, and they have been expressing their desire to be given more opportunities to contribute.

Youth empowerment includes individuals, youth organizations, and informal groups of young people. Empowerment enhances the capacity of youth and youth organizations to defend their interests, improve governance, and fight social exclusion. In order to become empowered, it is necessary to alleviate poverty and discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and age.

Some preconditions for empowerment include education and training to enable youth to acquire the necessary skills and abilities; good health; economic opportunities to acquire resources and assets; suitable channels for participation; and supportive institutional framework and values. Young people and youth organizations can be empowered through capacity building, consciousness-raising to enable young people to realize their rights, promoting learning through action, providing inputs in the policy and programming process, and participating in the decision-making process.

Empowering young people is an ongoing process. Youth empowerment can help implement the World Programme of Action for Youth and other global plans of action. Empowering young people will enable them to contribute more effectively to society and to the development of those societies. Young people are active agents for change and it is important to build their capacity and remove obstacles that stand in their way of acquiring sovereignty. Thus, capacity building complements empowerment.

As stated by the Secretary-General in a report to the United Nations General Assembly, "Adolescents and young adults are an important target group for all social development efforts, since they are often disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, and since the impact of such conditions during young age will most likely influence the entire lifespan. At the same time, young people can also be a major resource in the social mobilization needed to combat these very patterns." (document A/54/59, 5 January 1999)

For further information, contact: Joop Theunissen, Chief, Youth Unit, Division for Social Policy and Development, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, tel: 212-963-2791; fax: 212-963-3062; e-mail:

Elisabeth Ruzicka-Dempsey, Information Officer, Development and Human Rights Section, Public Affairs Division, UN Department of Public Information; tel: 212-963-3771; fax: 212-963-1186; e-mail:

For media accreditation, contact:

United Nations, Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit, Department of Public Information, Room S-250, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A.
fax: (212) 963-4642; e-mail:

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