Reviving Youth’s Role in Nepal’s Peacebuilding
September 29, 2010
Nearly four years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord marked a ceasefire between the government of Nepal and the Maoists, many marginalized groups still remain on the fringes of the decision-making process. Across political, ethnic, and social divides, Nepal’s young people are finding it particularly difficult to make their priorities matter in the halls of power.
And given that 60 percent of Nepal’s population is believed to be below 25 years of age, the youth represent a critical constituency for ensuring a successful peace process and developing a legitimate constitution. If the current government is able to meaningfully engage the growing youth population, it could mean the difference between sustaining the achievements of the pro-democracy movement of 2006 and allowing the country to descend once again into violence and conflict.
While there have been some positive steps toward mainstreaming youth in the recent past – the formation of the Ministry of Youth and a National Youth policy drafted by the Ministry of Youth and Sports to address issues concerning the youth in Nepal, as well as a strong youth representation in the Constituent Assembly (CA) – there’s no clear evidence that they will in fact have a meaningful leadership role or impact in policy-making. For example, though 137 out of 601 total CA members are below 35 years old, in reality, strong political party whips have thus far dissuaded them from deviating from party lines in order to voice concerns on behalf of Nepal’s young people. This has had the effect of watering down the potential influence of youth representation in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly.
This situation is compounded by an overall lack of educational and economic opportunities in Nepal. Many young people are poorly educated and unemployed or underemployed. A DFID report published last year on youth exclusion, violence, conflict, and fragile states refers to econometric analysis which shows a relationship between low education levels and risk of conflict. The report also mentions studies that suggest youth unemployment and under-employment can cause conflict or lead to youth involvement in criminal activities. These studies explain the Nepali experience in which young people have been pivotal for recruitment in new and emerging radicalized groups like the Young Communist League, the Youth Force, and other armed militant groups that lean toward extremist political agendas. Such groups primarily depend on young people to further their political cause that often tends to be violent. This is particularly critical now as 2,973 ex-Maoists under the age of 18 (at the time of the signing of Comprehensive Peace Accord) have been released from cantonments since January, while the fate of 19,602 more, average age of 25, is in discussion, according to unofficial Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) sources.
To help increase meaningful youth participation in policy decision-making, The Asia Foundation – under its Nepal Peace Support Project – organized from January to March 2010 a series of small town hall meetings in 45 municipalities to bring together young people to engage in constitutional dialogues. The meetings were designed to strengthen the voice and role of youth in the Constituent Assembly process, particularly among youth from smaller towns in Nepal where educational and employment opportunities are few, and where young people have less exposure to the political process. In those areas, the Foundation also worked with Women ACT Nepal, the Rural Community Development Council, and Samudayik Sarathi Nepal to conduct civic education and constitutional consultation programs in addition to the town hall meetings.
During the meetings, young community members discussed some of the most contentious constitutional issues proposed in the drafts prepared by different committees in the CA and still being debated by different political parties. These include forms of governance, federal restructuring, provision of compulsory military conscription, the judicial system, and citizenship issues. An analysis of their opinions and perceptions suggested a lack of support for the drafts on federalism presented by political parties and almost signified a veto against ethnic federalism.
In one meeting in Surkhet, in midwestern Nepal, participants voiced a strong preference for rethinking the stance on state restructuring, and questioned whether Nepal really needs a federal model with the promulgation of the new constitution. One of the participants stressed that if federalism is introduced to curb the centralization prevalent in the unitary system, but the same ineffective governance mechanism currently in place continues, the chance that federalism will be able to help decentralize the system is slim. Furthermore, the provision of compulsory military conscription in the draft constitution presented by the Committee on Preservation of National Interest was deemed infeasible and rejected by a majority of participants. Participants had mixed reactions regarding the ongoing debate over Nepal’s form of governance. Whether a parliamentary or presidential system of government is decided upon, the group insisted that there needs to be a system of checks and balance to ensure accountability to the people.
These perceptions highlight the sharp disconnect between the voices and perceptions of the youth and the current views dominating the CA discussions. The drafts on Federal restructuring of Nepal presented by all political parties have components of federalism based on an ethnic composition model. The largest party, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), has even proposed that the leadership of each federal district be taken by a particular ethnic group. This has been widely debated, as Nepal has 103 ethnic groups and 93 languages with no clear majority of any one ethnic group. While most political parties have voted entirely for, or for components of ethnicity-based federalism, the young people at the town hall meetings said that the federal lines should be delineated on the basis of geographical and economic strengths rather than ethnicity-based federal delineation. Such disagreements around fundamental issues of the constitution between the majority-young citizens and the older generation who dominate the social and political life in Nepal pose a threat to the legitimacy and ownership of the upcoming constitution in times ahead.
The youth engagement and involvement in the town hall meetings was encouraging and seemed to help bring these young people into the constitutional debates. Such anecdotal opinions that we gathered at the meetings will also shed light on how to further involve youth in the peace process and, more specifically, in constitutional debates. And, as the fate of Nepal’s constitution draws near, 60 percent of the nation’s citizens will be waiting to see if policy-makers have considered their opinions in the final constitution. If so, this will have paved a way to engage Nepal’s youth for the future; if not, we risk repeating our history of leaving out our young people yet again.
Mona Adhikari is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Nepal office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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