The power of youth advocacy

Mohamed Hisham at the focus group discussion at the University of ColomboOver the past few weeks, International Alert has held a series of workshops for young people in Sri Lanka on the topic of youth, media, good governance and advocacy.

The workshops aimed to provide young people with the skills and knowledge to make more constructive use of social media, especially for networking and advocacy, and included training on advocacy and activism, and ‘pocket and palm’ photography. We also held group discussions on what issues young people are facing in Sri Lanka as well as their perspectives on good governance, advocacy and activism.

At the first workshop, held in Maharagama, Colombo on 2 July, it emerged that young people often confuse silence with loyalty. The group, which comprised of people aged 19–24 from various parts of the country, including Tangalle, Puttlam and Kandy, discussed how being silent about another person’s negative actions cannot be justified as loyalty; rectifying them is more loyal, as it will benefit them more.

Participants also revealed that they subscribe to partisan politics, not because they entirely agree with the existing political system, but because they do not know how to operate outside it. In fact, 70% of participants openly said they intend to enter politics. This led to a discussion on the barriers to entering politics, where the group voiced their concerns on the importance of financial and social backgrounds, and that if your background is not deemed adequate, it might be a disadvantage.

The second workshop on 21 July was attended by students aged 21–25 at the University of Colombo, mostly from the Faculty of Law. This discussion centred on student unions and the tradition of ‘ragging’ or ‘hazing’, whereby senior students subject first-year students to harassment, abuse or humiliation as an initiation to the university, which has been heavily criticised for its sadistic nature and the mental trauma it inflicts on new students.

The conversation revealed a very precise class hierarchy at university based on language and financial backgrounds, with overt resentment and animosity between the classes. There also seems to be a superiority complex among various student groups, which is arguably reflective of the country’s current political system. This suggests that if not corrected at university level, power struggles tend to continue on to politics and parliament. Among those present at the workshop was Donald Cordell, Cultural Affairs Officer from the US embassy in Sri Lanka.

The first workshop was organised in partnership with the National Youth Services Council and the Asia Foundation, and the second with the Rotaract Club of the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo. Two further workshops will take place in Jaffna on 1 August with Agenda 14 and in Maharagama on 13 August with the National Youth Services Council. On 12 August, we will also be holding a further focus group discussion in Colombo with youth activists, leaders and representatives, to obtain a wider picture of youth activism and representation in Sri Lanka.

The trainings during the workshops were provided by Sanjana Hattotuwa, the curator and founder of Groundviews, a citizen-journalism website. For over 12 years, Hattotuwa has explored and advocated for the use of information and communications technology in strengthening a just peace, reconciliation, human rights and democratic governance.

The group discussions were moderated by Mohamed Hisham (pictured above), a mentor and motivator at Oxfam International Youth Partnerships. Hisham previously served as convenor of the Sri Lankan Youth Parliament (2007–2009). He has a keen interest in voluntary community services and co-authored the SLYP skills manual for young social change activists (BCIS).

You can find out more about Alert’s work in Sri Lanka here.