How youths define themselves varies according to their local contexts. But in many cases, values and institutions that traditionally influence the youth’s code of conduct are losing their influence.
Contrary to the criterion of age which is used in policy-making to identify a young person in Niger (based on the African Youth Charter), young people draw on other criteria to identify themselves as young, and there is no consensus on lower and upper limits to define youth. The study identified a multitude of youths and the way of defining themselves as young varies according to the contexts in which they live.
To be young is to be responsible. Young people describe this notion of responsibility in different ways depending on the contexts and economic activities available to them, and which vary considerably from one region to another. In Diffa for instance, the idea of responsibility does not cover the possibility of making decisions in the community. To be young is to have a quiet mind (‘esprit tranquille’) since one has less responsibilities. In other regions like Agadez and Dosso, there is a disconnect between the perceptions of the young who proclaim themselves responsible and their elders for whom youth is a time when one learns to be responsible but cannot be called responsible as of yet.
In regions where society can impose its code of conduct, the young person perceives herself/himself to remain useful and responsible if s/he complies with it. This social code structures how young people build and socialize in their environment, as exemplified in Maradi where young people are characterised by the love of the work, the desire to develop and realize their own potential. But in many cases, values and institutions that traditionally influence the youth’s code of conduct are losing their influence.
Some young people internalize and submit to the social rules to escape the gaze of society. Others resent being oppressed in their territory and feel the need to free themselves to succeed. This social crisis leads young people to follow different trajectories where those who are able to contravene the rules are perceived as marginal and by judged as irresponsible.
The breakdown of social control over young people leads to new perceptions of youth: to be young is a state of mind, a propensity to take risks, to transcend norms and values, to free oneself from it. But this recklessness of youth is in many cases creative and innovative. A society needs these marginalized people who are the locomotive of change. A defiant behaviour or the propensity to incivility from the young is often justified by the fact that the transmission from their elders is interrupted. This situation is characteristic of young people from localities where the central administration is close by.
Finally, the young woman lives her youth differently compared to the young man. The self-definition of the young woman is linked to the burdens imposed on her by society in terms of duties, responsibilities and reputation. These social rules are internalized by young women for fear of being stigmatized. As a result, in many contexts, the young woman's youthful life is compressed or even suppressed since she does not consider herself to be young when she is married or has given birth.
It thus appears that the relevance of criteria used to target young people in Niger is questionable. There is a need for public policies to take into account the contextual diversity in order to ensure better participation of young people in the development of their communities. In countries where society disempowers young people in local development, public policy must be redesigned to support young people in learning responsibility. But where social control is disintegrating, it will be important to find ways to restore and transmit positive values to young people. Ultimately, it is essential to set up a public programme that will identify marginalized youth and will actively include them in the targeting of public policies.