Every year, UNICEF publishes it’s flagship report “State of the World’s Children”. This report – read by thousands of people in governments, the United Nations, the media and the general public – typically examines a key issue affecting the welfare of children and strongly influences policy-makers and practitioners working in the field of children’s rights around the world.
So, it is exciting to see how policy-making at both the national and international levels will respond to the bold statement underlying the entire report: Young people, truly, can change the world.
The report , titled “Adolescence – An age of opportunity”, begins to question many of the assumptions that have been made about adolescents by society and implores policy-makers to recognise both the incredibly vulnerability of adolescents, where investments into their well-being and development have not been made, as well as the tremendous capacity of these very same individuals, where those investments have been made. (Download the State of the World’s Children 2011 report or watch the UNICEF video summaring the report.)
The themes that recur in the UNICEF report will resonate amongst those of us who are familiar with the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program for young adolescents aged 11 to 15. This program is premised on the belief that an investment must be made to develop the spiritual capacities of junior youth and to engage their energy and enthusiasm by cultivating a spirit of service within them.
In the 2010 Ridvan Message, the Universal House of Justice states:
While global trends project an image of this age group as problematic, lost in the throes of tumultuous physical and emotional change, unresponsive and self-consumed, the Baha’i community – in the language it employs and the approches it adopts – is moving decidedly in the opposite direction, seeing in junior youth instead altruism, an acute sense of justice, eagerness to learn about the universe and a desire to contribute to the construction of a better world.
While there is a long history of work being done in the international arena to protect the rights of children, the Baha’i Faith has always seen children not just as having the right to safety and protection in a passive sense, but as having the capacity to achieve great things and contribute to the progress of humanity.
The following prayer by ‘Abdu’l- Baha is one of my favourites, precisely because it encapsulates so beautifully, that capacity that junior youth possess.
O Lord! Make this youth radiant, and confer Thy bounty upon this poor creature. Bestow upon him knowledge, grant him added strength at the break of every morn and guard him within the shelter of Thy protection so that he may be freed from error, may devote himself to the service of Thy Cause, may guide the wayward, lead the hapless, free the captives and awaken the heedless, that all may be blessed with Thy remembrance and praise. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful.
The report by UNICEF signals a growing recognition by the international community of the capacity of junior youth to be active agents in social transformation, rather than just “future adults”. Empowering our adolescents, UNICEF emphasises, will lead to a world that is more equitable and prosperous.
Imagine if leaders began to fully understand the potential of junior youth to effect social change. What would happen if the education and spiritual development of the world’s adolescents were to be taken seriously? What would the world look like if we were directing our resources to the empowerment of our junior youth?
‘Abdu’l-Baha talks about the capacity of junior youth to guide the wayward, lead the hapless, free the captives and awaken the heedless. And UNICEF, it would seem, agrees!