Youth Bulge in South Asia: Challenges & Opportunities

The current population (2020) of South Asia is 1.9 billion. By 2050, that number is expected to rise to 2.4 billion people. One fifth of South Asia’s population is aged between 15 to 24 years old.

In 2020, the estimated total population in India amounted approximately to 1.38 billion people. It has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and around 65% below the age of 35. Similarly, Pakistan’s total population in 2020 was 208 million. It is one of the youngest countries in the world. 64% of the country’s population is under the age of 30.

Bangladesh’s total population is 168 million. Young people between the ages of 15-35 years make up nearly 33% of the population.

Youth issues in the region

Countries in SAARC have entered a critical demographic time where the number of work-age adults exceeds dependents (children and the elderly). This can be a demographic bonus and opportunity for increased development if young people are educated and provided with decent employment. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is nearing the end of this window of opportunity, but in Maldives this window of opportunity lasts until about 2030, Bangladesh and Bhutan until about 2035, India until about 2040, Nepal, Pakistan until about 2045, Afghanistan until even later. But the current global pandemic might further delay the process. Taking advantage of the demographic bonus requires that public policies take into account youth issues and a multi-sectoral approach is taken to increase the education, employment, health of young people with active participation of young people in planning for their future. Countries of the region have formulated their respective youth policies but a proper implementation is lacking. Investing in young people today by promoting health habits and access to health services, opportunities for better education and decent employment will also secure the lives of future generations of older people in South Asia.

Education

The urban young in South Asia have better access to education and career opportunities. Their parents also have a greater ability to support and invest in the higher aspirations of their children. A growing number of students can now afford to pursue undergraduate education in developed countries. Meanwhile, rural youth also have better access to education and opportunities than ever before, and their parents want to support their upwardly mobile aspirations. But steps need to be taken to improve girl’s education and job prospects. The gender gap in literacy rate is declining for all regions but South Asia. The region has the largest gender gap (17 percentage points) with an adult male literacy rate of 79 percent, and adult female literacy rate of 62 percent. Pakistan holds the second highest gender gap in the world, almost half of the eligible grade 1-12 girls have never gone to school in FATA and only 1 in 10 girls can read (2017 Global Gender Gap report).

But poor quality of education is also a challenge. Many young people in South Asia feel their education systems are outdated and do not adequately prepare them for employment. Bhutan and Sri Lanka top the list in the region with more than half of all young people in these countries projected to leave school in 2030 with basic skills. But the future looks bleaker for youth in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The challenge is in bridging the gap between education and necessary skills.

Unemployment

There are universal concerns related to the staggering rates of youth unemployment. According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) South Asia has the largest youth labour force in the world with nearly 100,000 young people entering the labour market each day. Unemployment of young people in South Asia is around 20% (World Bank). However, young women in South Asia are much more likely to be unemployed. This can be gauged from the fact that the female labor force participation rate is only 23.6% versus 80% for men.

Health

The health of youth, particularly their sexual and reproductive health, needs to be addressed to ensure a healthy workforce. With a significant number of girls being married before the age of 18 in South Asia, deaths of young women contribute significantly to maternal mortality in the region. In South Asia, an estimated 320,000 young people aged 15-24 are living with HIV, yet comprehensive knowledge of HIV is low. Many countries in the region do not provide comprehensive sexuality education and there are legal and social barriers to accessing youth friendly health services.

Drug Addiction

Abuse of alcohol and drugs is a worldwide problem. In countries of the South Asian region including Bangladesh, Butan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, the drugs commonly abused are heroin, cannabis, opium, and pharmaceutical preparations. Abuse of drugs not only poses a threat to the individual’s health but consequently give rise to socioeconomic problems. Alcohol and drug abuse cause stress in families and drain their resources. Some studies have shown that the women abusers in South Asian countries are on rise.

South Asia is riven by conflicts; thereby engagement of youth becomes all the more important. Poor quality of education, high rates of unemployment and lack of coordination at the regional level constitute a perfect recipe for disaster.

The writer teaches Political Science at GDC Women Anantnag. Views are personal.