Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh has been actively engaged in youth-oriented activities in recent years.

As a part of its ongoing activism, the Citizen’s Platform organised the Youth Conference 2023, a half-day event aimed at understanding the thoughts, political inclinations, perspectives and interests of young people of the country in anticipation of Bangladesh’s democratic transition.

The event took place on Saturday 14 October 2023 at the Krishibid Institution Bangladesh (KIB), Farmgate, Dhaka.

The Citizen’s Platform organised the Youth Conference 2023 with support from Plan International Bangladesh and in partnership with ActionAid Bangladesh, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), HEKS/ EPERManusher Jonno Foundation, SOS Children’s Village Bangladesh, Transparency International Bangladesh and WaterAid Bangladesh.

Under the banner of the Conference theme “Let the country be what the youth aspires it to be” more than 600 young individuals from diverse backgrounds and regions across the country participated in the Conference. Inclusivity was at the heart of the Conference, welcoming youth from remote areas, marginalized communities, individuals with disabilities, transgender community and indigenous groups.

Highlights of the Conference included the presentation of the youth survey findings and a parliamentary debate on whether the youth are prepared to shoulder the responsibility of Bangladesh’s future. These were followed by a session with political leaders and eminent citizens who shared their views as regards, aspirations of the youth, expectations from them and how to address the youth’s lack of enthusiasm for mainstream politics.

Opening of the event

The Conference commenced with the singing of the National Anthem, followed by two opening songs, Nazrul Geeti and Rabindra Sangeet. Songs were accompanied by traditional folk drum music performed by students from the Government Music College, Dhaka. The spirited performances of the singers inspired the audience to join in and a melodious chorus resounded in the hall.

The Conference was broadcast live on social media, reaching an audience of more than four thousand five hundred, some joining from abroad.

Following the opening Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, Convenor, Citizen’s Platform and Distinguished Fellow, CPD gave welcome remarks and provided the context of the Conference. He also introduced the eminent guests present who included representatives of different political parties. He briefly outlined various sessions to follow.

Youth Survey Highlights: Youth Perspective on Policy-making in Bangladesh

To learn about the views of young people, Citizen’s Platform conducted an extensive online survey titled “Youth perspective on Policy-making of Bangladesh”. The survey was conducted during September and early October 2023 and was participated by 5075 young people nationwide.

Bandhu Social Welfare Society, British Council, Dhrubotara Youth Development Foundation-DYDF, Education and Development Foundation-Educo, Bangladesh, JAAGO Foundation, Kapaeeng Foundation, Naripokkho, The Hunger Project, Bangladesh, Women with Disabilities Development Foundation-WDDF, United Nations Youth and Students Association of Bangladesh, Youth Engagement For Sustainability, Bangladesh, Youth for Change Bangladesh, East West University Economics Club, Young Economists’ Forum (YEF) oranisations joined this initiative as Survey Partners.

The results of the online survey were presented by Mr Towfiqul Islam Khan, Senior Research Fellow, CPD. Profile of the survey participants and some of the key messages were the following:

  • 89.4% of youth (18-35) are registered on the voter list, but 53.8% had never cast their vote in a national election and 46% never cast a vote in any local election. 43.1% of the participants in the survey said that they were hesitant, uncomfortable and shy in expressing their opinions. On the other hand, 36.4% said that they have been harassed in the past while expressing their opinion.
  • 79.1% mentioned social media as the main source of news/information on development policy/politics.
  • 19.7% felt that the effective participation of youth in policy/development discussions has increased significantly and felt that over the last five years, while 13.6% thought that it has decreased significantly.
  • 69.4% of youth respondents considered corruption and nepotism to be the main obstacles to the development of Bangladesh. On the other hand, 46.5% considered a lack of transparency and accountability, and 32.6% felt prioritizing the interests of vested groups was the main obstacle.
  • 56.2% of respondents mentioned ensuring anti-corruption, accountability and freedom of expression as development priorities. 55.4% considered quality education and skills development and 40.2% marked decent employment for youth as a development priority.
  • If there’s an opportunity, 18.7% of respondents said they will live abroad permanently. However, a majority, 53.2%, saw their future in living in Bangladesh.

The audience found the findings interesting and thought-provoking as well.

Parliamentary Debate: Are today’s youth ready to take charge of Bangladesh

A parliamentary debate session was organised on the topic “Are today’s youth ready to take charge of Bangladesh”. Four former debaters participated in the session, arguing two for the notion, and two against the notion. The speakers passionately presented their points, creating an engaging atmosphere.

The team in favour of the notion made compelling arguments, highlighting Bangladesh’s significant progress and emphasising the youth’s crucial role in the realisation of the promise that Bangladesh is. They pointed out the country’s digitalisation, citing examples such as the online educational platform “10 Minutes School” and the road-safety movement back in 2018 which resulted in bikers having to wear helmets. They mentioned other movements led by the youth.

The opposing team countered the points offered by for the notion team, underscoring persistent challenges such as lack of quality internet access in remote areas, quality of education, lack of access to online education, rampant corruption etc. They also raised concerns about youth leaving the country when given opportunities, questioning who would bear the responsibility of nation building and economic development in their absence.

Later on, there was an open debate where 14 young men and women from the audience participated for and against the same notion. The session was very engaging and the audience enjoyed the informed exchange of contrary views and arguments.

The session was facilitated by Mr Avra Bhattacharjee, Joint Director, Dialogue and Outreach, CPD.

Identifying Youth Priorities

Fourteen youth priorities and expectations were identified by the Citizen’s Platform based on opinions emerging from youth surveys and the focus group discussions conducted by the Citizen’s Platform. Ms Tarannum Jinan, Senior Administrative Associate, CPD, and Network Focal, Citizen’s Platform, facilitated the session.

The 14 identified issues were the following:

  1. Put in place a job registration system for the unemployed youth
  2. Introduce youth unemployment allowance
  3. Launch a Special youth credit card with a government guarantee to underwrite their education and job-search-related needs
  4. Roll out flexible loan facility with low-interest rates for young entrepreneurs
  5. Institute seat reservation with funding for disadvantaged youth in private universities
  6. Provide adolescent healthcare services in all community health clinics
  7. Guarantee affordable day-care facility for working parents
  8. Install vending machines for sanitary napkins in all educational institutions
  9. Provide mental health and drug addiction treatment services at the upazila level
  10. Enact legal provisions to entitle brother and sister and transgender child with equal property rights
  11. Ensure “Living Wages” for industrial workers
  12. Give priority to youth candidates in parliamentary elections
  13. Support access to online platforms and internet facilities for students at affordable costs
  14. Repeal various legal and administrative measures against freedom of expression including Digital/Cyber Security Act

Fourteen youth participants from diversified backgrounds and different youth organisations participated and shared their views on the 14 selected topics. This was followed by the audience participating in live voting to decide which was the most important topic according to them. The voting was carried out with the help of the Mentimeter. The online voting was also open for audiences who joined virtually. The top three priorities that emerged from audience voting were freedom of expression, the introduction of an employment registration system and the provision of unemployment allowance.

Reflections by the Special Guests

The Conference concluded with a highly interesting panel discussion which was moderated by Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya. The speakers included Dr Moshreka Aditi Huq, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Chittagong University, Ms Shama Obaed Islam, Organising Secretary and Member, Foreign Relations Committee, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Mr Ahasanul Islam (Titu), MP, Industry and Commerce Affairs Secretary, Tangail District Awami League, Mr Ahsan Adelur Rahman, MP, Vice-Chairman, Central Executive Committee, Jatiya Party, Mr Kazi Nabil Ahmed, MP, Member, Jashore District Awami League and Executive Member, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The guests shared their perspectives on the Conference, the role of youth in nation-building and advancing the interests of the country, the challenges the youth face and the way forward. They offered words of encouragement for the youth. Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Core Group Member, Citizen’s Platform and Distinguished Fellow, CPD, made the concluding remarks.

Dr Moshreka Aditi Huq emphasised the importance of understanding the thoughts of the youth. She pointed out the prevailing sense of alienation in the society. Highlighting that in the past politics was viewed as a vocation, she maintained that politics has now become a means for individual financial advancement. As a result, the youth are disappointed and disillusioned.

Ms Shama Obaed Islam highlighted the pragmatism of today’s youth, as evidenced by their online voting priorities. For the youth, freedom of expression, job security and concerns about how one’s political affiliation affects one’s job prospects were major concerns. She also mentioned about enforced disappearances, emphasised the urgent need to reconsider concerned laws. She noted the Digital Security Act (DSA), in this connection and noted that this contradicts freedom of expression. She also recalled BNP’s efforts to support the youth when it was in power during 2001-2006. She recalled that the then government established the Ministry of Youth and Sports. She assured that her party will continue to support the youth whenever the opportunity arises.

Impressed by the active participation of the youth, Mr Ahasanul Islam (Titu), MP, said that freedom of speech is a necessity. He also pointed out that the DSA should be geared to protect individual’s privacy, and does not contradict freedom of expression. There is a fine line between the two, he mentioned. He recalled the various development projects the current government has undertaken including infrastructural projects. He referred to recent improvements in roads and transportation as also increased educational and job opportunities such as freelancing. He assured to incorporate youth demands into the upcoming election manifesto of his party, the Bangladesh Awami League, such as emphasising that employment opportunities for the youth will be a key priority in his party manifesto.

Mr Ahsan Adelur Rahman, MP, stressed the importance of interest in politics among the youth. He acknowledged the disillusionment of today’s youth and their “I hate politics” attitude. He thought at the root was the youth’s negative views about nepotism, corruption, and party politics. He also underscored that youth should prioritise Bangladesh, stay in the country and work for the country. He committed to include the youth community’s demands in the election manifesto of his party, the Jatiya party.

Appreciating the informed and insightful parliamentary debate of the young participants, Mr Kazi Nabil Ahmed, MP, said that the youth is the light of hope for Bangladesh. Young people played an important role in the history of Bangladesh, he recalled. Contribution to our war independence was in 1971, is a proud legacy of the youth of our earlier generation. He also noted the tendency of elderly people to question the views of young minds and power at different points in time but felt that youth had always delivered.

In the closing speech, Professor Mustafizur Rahman said that youth always look for motivation and inspiration. The Youth Conference 2023 organised by the Citizen’s Platform was an exercise in motivation and inspiration. He felt the Conference was able to deliver on its promise. The Conference proved that despite the problems, difficulties and challenges, the young people of Bangladesh see their future in Bangladesh. The Conference revealed that they are also ready to contribute to building the country in their own image. His understanding was that young people aspire for not only an economically developed but a socially inclusive Bangladesh. He invited youth to remain interested in politics and to grow up as conscious citizens.

Youth Conference 2023 came to a closure with sounds of traditional drum music, followed by lunch.

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