Enthusiasm, energy, vibrancy, impulse, innovation and dynamism are nature of Youth. August 12 was first designated as the International Youth Day by the UN General Assembly in 1999, and serves as an annual celebration of the role of young women and men as essential partners in change, and as an opportunity to raise awareness of challenges and problems facing the world’s youth. However, in 1984, the Government of India declared January 12, the birthday of Swami Vivekananda, to be celebrated as the National Youth Day.

This year ‘Safe Spaces for Youth’ is the core focus of the International Youth Day. It is very important today to provide and ensure safe spaces for youth, especially those vulnerable to marginalization or violence, where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves.

It is also important to ask whether their primary life-needs are being met, do they lead lives free from abuse and exploitation, are they protected from life-altering threats like early marriage and childbearing, is their home / living environment a safe and protective space, do they have access to physical, mental and reproductive health services, are they shielded from premature assumption of economic roles and financial / responsibilities, and finally, are they protected from taking on adult roles?

No country can afford to ignore its youth and their role in building productivity and defense capabilities of a nation. India is a young nation in the sense that share of its youth in total population is 2011 stands at 34.8%. India is also seen to remain younger than many other populous countries.

The National Youth Policy (NYP – 2014) launched in Feb 2014 proposed holistic ‘vision’ for the youth of India which is to ‘empower youth of the country to achieve their full potential and through them enable India to find its rightful place in the community of nation’. The NYP – 2014 has defined ‘youth’ as persons in the age-group of 15-29 years.

However, as National Policy for Children (NPC – 2013) has adopted 18 years as the accepted age marker of completion of childhood, hence anyone who is below 18 years of age is considered as a child for all academic, administrative and practical purposes. The other definitions of Young People are 10-24 years: UNFPA and 15-24 years: UN, ILO and UNICEF and UNCRC define childhood as covering all persons up to the age of 18 years.

So when we say ‘Youth’, we also include children between the age group of 15-18 thus sandwiching the age group between ‘growing ups’ and ‘grown ups’. Today every fifth child in India is between 15-18 years of age, which means every fifth child may, if neglected, fall through the cracks in the safety net of adequate care and protection. In absolute numbers, at the present, the total number of children within the age group of 15-18 across India is nearly a 100 million. There are currently 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the world. This is the largest youth population ever.

The numbers are significant when viewed from a global perspective as well. According to the estimates of global and country-specific population for the age-group of 15-17 as calculated by UN World Population Division, over the intervening decades, the proportion has increased to 21% in 2015 (as part of India’s ongoing demographic dividend showing a significant growth rate for this age group over the last six decades) and will remain significant at 17% in 2050 and 13% in 2100.

State-wise information available from the RGI population projections 2006 shows that states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh continues with the rising population trend till 2026. An exception is the state of Tamil Nadu which shows continuation of a reversal trend that started way back in 2001.

Investment by Governments and policy makers towards strengthening human capital in this age group enable both personal and national growth, and may result in an improved quality of life. This holds particular relevance for India as a growing nation.

If we are to truly assist this age group, help them find their place in tomorrow’s society and be in a position to influence positive changes at all societal levels, it is necessary to build a comprehensive understanding of their needs and vulnerabilities. Without supportive interventions, vulnerable youths in this age group cannot hope to continue receiving opportunities for education and learning. They may not be able to subsequently find decent work and livelihood, or hope to remain healthy and untouched by health hazards, including early pregnancy, HIV, or occupational hazards.

The age group of 15-18 years is a stage of significant physical, mental and sexual development and like every childhood stage it needs love and care and protection. The way we water the land, sow seeds and the seedlings then push through the soil and unfold their tiny leaves, the way we apply fertilizers after a few weeks, the way we do fencing and protect saplings from all external threats so that they grow up strong – we do the same to our children.

What will happen to a plant without water, fertilizer, fencing and care? To extend the analogy, what will happen to the child and the youth without education, care, love, protection, nutrition and guidance? Sexual maturation, puberty and physiological changes are much talked about issues, and their linkage to gender-based violence is very common today; but at the same time there is complete dearth of non-availability of sex education and life skill education.

It is important to create platforms where they can update themselves about safe sex practices and contraceptives or even about abstinence. So, clearly, somebody needs to talk to them about sexual and reproductive health issues and rights.

Today, every minute children and youth are exposed to violence, abuse, lynching, hate crimes, and social intolerance. In this volatile environment it is all the more important to ensure that children and youth from different race / ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or cultural background may feel intimidated to freely contribute to the community. When youth have safe spaces to engage, they can effectively contribute to development, including peace and social cohesion.

Other sets of unique vulnerabilities of this age group are pressure of peers, pressure of expectations, pressure to perform well, pressure to be recognized and acknowledged in the society, school, amongst peers, increasing suicides, etc. In the nutshell, the vulnerabilities faced by the 15-18 age group of children are multilayered, complex and inter-linked across the various socio-ecological levels, beliefs and institutional mechanisms. Hence to address the vulnerabilities the approach needs to be multifold and multidimensional.

The overall data for 15-18 years age group is rather disturbing, as only half of the children in this age group finish school age-appropriately, estimated more than 50 million are out of school, 23 million are working, more than 9 million are married, 3.4 million are mothers, 80% cases of kidnapping / trafficking affect this age group, spousal Violence faced by 21% of girls.

Even if these numbers don’t tell the full story, they are indeed indicators of the fact that it’s time we start rewriting the story. In a country that is home to a 100 million children within the age-group of 15-18 years, we must ask about what overall care and protection are provided to them, so that they can grow to their full potential.

While observing the International Youth Day, the state must take the accountability to form the safety net desirable for children across the nation, and create safe spaces for them so that they can become responsible and productive citizens of the country.

(Priti Mahara is the Director of Policy, Research and Advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You )