Having worked in Asia for over 8 years now, I often come across this telling statistic on civic engagement: only 9 of the 39 countries in Asia Pacific—representing less than 2 per cent of the population—have a civic space. For young people, this means that they may not have adequate and safe channels to meaningfully participate in decisions that affect their lives.
Notwithstanding the above, young people across the region are continuously finding creative ways to raise their voices and engage on issues that matter to them. The youth-led protests across Southeast Asia in 2020 and 2021 are examples of young people creating and demanding spaces for participation and expressing their desires to be heard.
We know that when young people are engaged in decision-making, in particular around decisions that impact their lives – in areas such as education, environment, adolescent health, employment policies – then policies are more relevant, effective and there is greater likelihood of uptake and impact. Unfortunately, meaningful adolescent and youth participation in decision making is not yet the norm in many countries in the region.
However, this is starting to change.
Governments across ASEAN are starting to explore ways to systematically work with and for adolescents and youth, by establishing youth councils, developing youth-led solutions and fora, and seeking out youth input in policy design. These mechanisms are a good start, but as many young people have shared with me, often adolescent and youth participation feels like an after-thought, tokenistic, or lacking adequate incentives and recognition for young people’s contributions. These sentiments were raised during UNICEF’s 2021 regional conference “Building Pathways to Empowerment”, and more recently at a Y20 Global Webinar I led with youth delegates.
So how can we support sustained and meaningful adolescent participation across institutions, moving away from ad-hoc and tokenistic consultations? How might we look beyond the typical idea of civic engagement and explore how young people can play a role in shaping their schools, their communities and their local governments?
A journey to develop new tools for adults and adolescents to come together and co-create
In late 2021, UNICEF EAPRO and UNICEF Thailand, together with Aflatoun International and the International Institute for Child Rights and Development, embarked on a journey to explore the above questions.
We began with a consultation with young people from across ASEAN, held on the side of the above-mentioned Building Pathways to Empowerment Conference. The consultation helped us understand how and why young people want to be engaged in decision making in ASEAN, and the different barriers they face. Drawing on the consultation, the partners then worked to design participatory learning modules for adolescents and policy makers to help them develop a shared understanding of adolescent participation and how it can be applied in schools and in local governance.
The modules, essentially a series of workshops, were then tested with the target group: adolescents and policy makers. In this instance, via UNICEF Thailand, we were fortunate to have an active partner in the the Department of Children and Youth of the Thai Ministry of Social Development of Human Security and UNICEF Thailand’s Young People Advisory Board. Implementing the tests during the COVID-19 pandemic, of course meant virtual workshops and many Zoom emojis!
Following the successful tests, in June 2022 UNICEF hosted a Training of Trainers workshop with 8 Thai NGOs that have experience working with and for children and adolescents. The participants explored the modules, asking questions like “What does it mean to be a good citizen and how can we foster meaningful participation in local governance?”, “Who are our champions of adolescent participation, and how might we engage them?” and “What groups of adolescents may find it difficult to participate, and how can we include them?” This group of master trainers also developed their action plans for adapting and implementing the Modules with various partners.
When I spoke with one of the NGO participants, Khun Thepthira Chaiinkham a Programme Manager at Right to Play, I asked him what he felt is holding adults back from listening to and working with adolescents and youth. “In our [Thai] culture, to be a good child, you follow your parents. But now, children understand that they have rights and want to voice their opinions. I think the biggest challenge for participation is our traditional social norms on young people’s roles.” He explained that the training gave him concrete tools to understand various approaches to adolescent participation, which in turn may help him encourage policy makers and other adults build their confidence with adolescent participation by giving them options that could work for their context.
Reflecting on the 4-day training workshop, Khun Tanitsa Akkaraphanthawee, a Social Worker at Thailand’s Department of Children and Youth and co-facilitator of the workshop, said “Meaningful adolescent participation should be promoted through cooperation of government, NGOs and CSOs. [It should be based] on the understanding that adolescents of different abilities and backgrounds can be included and their participation can influence outcomes."
Other participants shared how they see the tools impacting their work: “I am now thinking more about inclusion across all we do,” one person said; and “I now have a clear framework for assessing participation, risks, and strategies” another participant mentioned.
Looking ahead: Moving towards a Community of Practice
The event marked an important milestone for UNICEF Thailand in their journey to support their Thai government partners to integrate participation in decision-making. “We need participation to be ingrained in the hearts and minds of adults and children alike. From any angle you look at it, this is needed for Thailand to achieve sustainable development,” UNICEF Thailand Representative Kyungsun Kim stated at the closing of the workshop.
Developing these initial modules on Adolescent Participation is also an exciting step for UNICEF’s Regional Office in East Asia and the Pacific. We plan to roll out the Modules in more countries and to make them available for partners, youth and governments to put into practice the valuable approach of giving young people an equal seat at the table. In time, we hope to have an active and intergenerational Community of Practice to share lessons learned and continuously improve and innovate on what adolescent participation can look like in ASEAN.
Allison Morris is an Adolescent Development Specialist at UNICEF EAPRO
 For details on civic space monitoring, please see CIVICUS: https://findings2021.monitor.civicus.org/asia-pacific.html
 Please see UNICEF’s Engaged & Heard Guidelines on Adolescent Participation for more background on the impact adolescent participation has on policy making.