Youth Boom and Possible Futures

Naeem Mohaiemen

Photo: Naeem Mohaiemen

Hana Shams Ahmed

[Published in ‘Our Common Future: South Asia’ by Liberal Youth South Asia, a network of liberal youth and youth organisations. November 2008]

In 2008, the results of Bangladesh’s Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams had an all-time record pass percentage – 72 per cent – and the highest number of GPA-5 recipients ever. For a few years now, all these records are getting broken at every level of higher education. Beyond what it may mean for higher education, it keeps bringing to the media images of hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls in the streets – waving, clapping, celebrating – the shape of our exploding youth boom.

In 2005, Goldman Sachs introduced the concept of the Next Eleven (N-11), where Bangladesh and 10 other countries were identified as countries that could potentially have a BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – like impact in rivalling the G7. The ground for selecting Bangladesh was, among other factors, its pool of large population of young people – a median national age of 21 and between 60-70 per cent of its population under the age of 30. Starting from its formation in 1971, Bangladesh has seen its youth actively involving in grassroot-level political and social activism. In 1971, Sheikh Mujib’s speech rejected the Two-Nation Theory and inspired young people who took up arms and freed Bangladesh from the Pakistan regime in a bloody nine-month struggle. That legacy continued in the culture of ‘student politics’, which is both celebrated and sometimes reviled.

Throughout the 1980s, the military junta of General Ershad battled student politics on all campuses, in an attempt to cut off all sources of dissent. While older political leaders compromised at many steps and lengthened the junta’s time in power, student groups remained fierce and uncompromising. In 1991, the army regime finally collapsed and democracy was returned – older political leaders brought to parliament on the shoulders of youth power. Although there are many aspects of Bangladesh’s youth boom that economists, sociologists, anthropologists and policymakers are talking about, here we focus on three illustrative aspects: gender, technology and migration.

Gender Struggles

Even in a time of “democracy”, after the fall of army rule, there continued to be many issue-based social activisms that only students dared take up, and with great effect. One of the biggest movements carried out by students under democracy was at Jahangirnagar University, with a fiery campaign against sexual harassment on campus. In 1998, students orchestrated a nationwide movement, boycotting classes, leading very vocal demonstrations on campus and splashing attention all over the print media to a phenomenon that was until then was the campus’ open secret – sexual harassment by professors and fellow students. This included politically affiliated goons who were audacious enough to even celebrate a ‘(cricket) century in rape’ by distributing sweets to their friends at a public event. The mass student movement finally forced the very reluctant university authorities to take decisive action.

In the absence of any formal structure of complaint hearing, many Bangladeshi students keep incidents of sexual harassment to themselves. Students fear having their identities exposed, of social stigma and in the case of a teacher-student interaction, the student is usually too aware of the power advantage the teacher has over her. The Jahangirnagar case allowed youth mobilisation and expression of student power against this phenomenon. It began with an incident inside a University bus when a male student of Jahangirnagar University sexually harassed a girl. The girl reacted immediately to this invasion of her privacy and protested but even the teachers present inside the bus did not come to her aid and the boy managed to get off. The girl later made a formal complaint to the university authorities. Progressive students (both boys and girls) made public protests demanding the harasser’s punishment. In 1998, a series of rapes and incidents of sexual harassment by a group of students with political backing came to public view. After months of campaigning, the university authorities finally gave in.

Although the ruling by the Jahangirnagar University syndicate was very lenient compared to the violent nature of the crime (the main culprit was expelled from the university, the others received suspended sentences), it still gave credence to a symbolic national youth movement against socially accepted subjugation of women in public spaces.

Since then, the student body, with help from human rights organisations, have been lobbying the government to implement a policy on sexual harassment at all educational and employment institutions.

Tech Generation

The ‘mobile’ and internet boom of the last decade is another place where the youth have really shown adaptability and hunger for rapid change. Blogging, which creates an instant two-way dialogue, has been a unique new addition to the media space for young people. People report with eyewitness accounts of events on the ground, opening up whole new possibilities for citizen journalists to give a broad perspective on the happenings around us from politics to human rights to health issues. After a state of emergency was declared in 2007, the blogging community was at its most active. More news and views seemed to be coming from there than any established, financially supported news medium, whether print or electronic.

In Bangladesh, attaining a high level of reader participation narrows down to those who have regular access to the Internet. In spite of this barrier, more and more young people, even from lower income families, are looking to blogs to get the latest news on whatever issue they are interested in. The flowering of vernacular Bangla language blogging has widened the net even further. Although it is still at the early stages, over the past two years, blogs have increasingly become the medium of choice for the younger generation.

Mobile phones have expanded faster than any other technological innovation in the country. Although the Grameen Bank started a decade ago with mobile phones as an empowerment tool for women, it quickly moved away from that and has become vital to every aspect of person’s life.

The fall in mobile expenses and low-priced handsets is making Bangladesh the fastest growing mobile phone market in Asia. At the end of 2004, the total number of mobile phone users was around four million. By August 2008, that number stood at 45 million. Talking, SMSing, taking spontaneous photos, exchanging video clips, serenading neighbours with ringtones, voting for your favourite singer; it has now become, to borrow a slogan from Bangladesh m-commerce pioneer Cellbazaar, ‘a bazaar in your pocket’. As aggressive marketing campaigns and incentive packages have reduced prices, this new technology driven culture has affected the broader social values and norms in the conservative culture of Bangladesh. The young generation have become more liberated from earlier family control and constraints on social interactions. Young mobile phone users have developed their own symbols, slang, codes and unique style to communicate with each other. This promises to have broader ramifications as they pass out of school and college and enter future job force.

Crossing Borders

In the last decade, remittances sent back by young migrant workers in various parts of Asia and the Middle East have had a very positive effect on the country’s economy. In the 1970s, there were only a few thousand migrant workers from Bangladesh. By 2002 the figure went up to more than three million, with about $24 billion being sent back in remittances over that period. In the fiscal year of 2006-2007, the expatriate Bangladeshis have remitted $6 billion. The per capita amount that our migrant workers remitted is 33 per cent higher than those of India, which is the second largest remittance receiving country in the world.

The Global Economic Perspective Report of 2006 by the World Bank found that remittance flow has helped Bangladesh to cut poverty by six per cent. Unfortunately, there have also been horror stories of human rights abuses of Bangladeshi migrant workers and there has been increasing backlash on the unregulated manpower industry of Bangladesh where young people, duped by crooked manpower agencies and middlemen, have had to come back empty handed and with a high amount of debt on their heads.

But the Bangladesh government only needs to invest a little more money and attention to tap into this huge potential, the millions of young men and women who can not only improve the living conditions of their families in rural Bangladesh, but also increase the GDP of the country. By investing in a better-equipped labour departmentin embassies, by regulating recruitment agencies and raising mass awareness about legal procedures of seeking work in a foreign country, young workers’ welfare will be protected, and Bangladeshis will spread out all over a globalised and inter-connected world.

What’s next?

Bangladesh clearly can take advantage of a youth boom to counter its current image crisis. The international press has portrayed the country as one of the poorest countries of the world and as potentially the principal casualty of climate change. But youth-led movements since independence have been dynamic, productive, and forward looking. Goldman Sachs N11 list is an early acknowledgment of the youth boom’s tremendous potential. Now, it is up to policy, guidance and youth themselves to realise all these potentials.


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