What future do our young people face?

Our youth are exploited by those in power. VISUAL: SALMAN SAKIB SHAHRYAR


Our youth are exploited by those in power. VISUAL: SALMAN SAKIB SHAHRYAR

The majority of Bangladeshis are young. If we consider people aged 14 to 29, they represent around 30% of the population, according to government estimates. People between the ages of 1 and 14 represent more than 25% of the population. Those able to work – those between the ages of 15 and 59 – constitute the largest segment of the population: more than 65%. The number of people in the 14-29 age group currently stands at 50 million, and this number is growing.

In my opinion, this segment of the child and youth population faces the greatest danger in Bangladesh today. This danger materializes in different ways. Firstly, a healthy and safe environment, devoid of fear, necessary for their growth, is non-existent. Their educational environment is hostile to healthy growth in many ways; the privatization and commercialization of education has deteriorated its quality; they have no playgrounds to play in, ponds to swim in, and the trees and greenery are disappearing around them. Playgrounds are gradually being transformed into large construction projects, and now children are growing up and spending their formative years on the streets or behind closed doors.

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Second, the unemployment rate is highest among educated people. Meanwhile, those in the process of getting an education also suffer from a lack of security. Considering the gono halls of public universities (a common space shared by a large number of students), a freshman faces immense mental pressure as soon as he arrives. Student organizations supported by the ruling party control everything about their lives – how they behave, where they go, what they do – they force freshmen to attend political rallies. If a student faces all of these hurdles in their very first year, their academic performance plummets as a direct result. A fraction of these students, often just out of survival or in pursuit of power, end up joining this same group of young people who are used as muscle power.

This brings me to my third point. A small group of powerful people in Bangladesh are benefiting badly from unemployment and the lack of quality education; they take advantage of this environment hostile to free thought and creativity, which breeds fear and greed, to use young people as a weapon.

If we look at recent developments, fuel prices have risen along with those of other basic necessities, and people are protesting against this price hike. When injustice takes place in universities or elsewhere, people try to protest against it. In many of these situations, we have seen student organizations or government-backed youth organizations ready to oppose the cause, armed with machetes and sticks. We have seen that when teenagers revolted to demand road safety, those who attacked them were also young. People call them “helmet bahini,” and that bahini or strength increases gradually.

Female students who find themselves in this difficult situation face a greater degree of insecurity. We hear news of sexual harassment and rape almost daily, of which young women are the victims. In many of these cases, the allegations are directed against the Bangladesh Chhatra League or other government-backed organizations. They created this reign of terror by connecting with the powers that be.

A major concern today is the fact that in 50 years none of the services our young people need to thrive throughout their lives – education, creativity, sports, cultural activities, libraries – have experienced substantial growth in Bangladesh. As a result, they grow up in a dry, uncreative and cruel environment. Moreover, those in power use some of these young people for profit, to make money, to extend their power, and they often use them against other young people.

A culture of fear exists in our universities and in society in general. When we look at our youth today, we can see into what danger and uncertainty they are thrown in the name of consolidating political power.

My question is: what are the plans of the government with this huge segment of the population that is supposed to take over the reins of this country in the future? Does he want them to turn into machines? Does he want them to turn into a group of people devoid of thought, conscience and sympathy? Is this the government’s intention? To exploit them as they see fit?

A glimmer of hope is that even from within this mess, youth are making their voices heard, whether with road safety protests, Sundarbans protests, national interest or democracy protests . The touch of creativity we see in these protests reassures us, but it’s time we started asking ourselves where our government is leading our young people.

Transcribed and translated by Azmin Azran.

Anou Muhammad is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.

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