As celebrations to mark the International Youth Week under the theme ‘Safe spaces for youth’ continue, young people in Kenya continue to face myriad challenges that cumulatively make the future look bleak for this demographic of the Kenyan population. For a start, Kenyan youth have no safe spaces.
The challenges include lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, HIV/Aids, crime and violence, drug abuse and social exclusion.
These have not been given adequate attention because there is a mismatch between the aspirations of young people and the opportunities available to them for the realisation of their potential.
Due to poverty, the youth in Kenya have fallen prey to political manipulation by moneyed politicians who use them to win elections, then dump them.
Ask any youth who was shouting and dancing himself or herself lame a few months ago and they will tell you sobering stories.
Youth need safe spaces where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision-making and freely express themselves.
These include civic spaces to enable them to engage in governance issues.
Public spaces afford youth the opportunity to participate in sports and other leisure activities.
Digital spaces help youth interact virtually across borders and well-planned physical spaces can help accommodate the needs of diverse youth, especially those vulnerable to marginalisation or violence.
But high expectations, disappointing employment and marginalisation continue to fuel frustration and desperation among the youth.
As a result, some have turned to criminal behaviour, violence, substance abuse, and commercial sex work.
These activities have repercussions on young people and contribute to growing insecurity in society.
In Kenya, as in many other countries, young people are viewed as the main perpetrators of crime.
Sadly, although youth crime and violence are a problem in Kenya, not much has been done in terms of interventions to combat them.
Why Kenyan youths are getting increasingly radicalised and lured into joining terror groups such as Somalia’s Al Shabaab goes to show how wrong our priorities are, to the point of visiting misery and desperation among the youth.
Indeed, unemployed youths continue to pose serious danger to national security.
Many youths are increasingly becoming mentally disturbed because of disillusionment with their prospects and failing to get decent incomes.
Yet mental health is a hidden problem in Kenya because the stigma associated with mental illness means is often left untreated and undiagnosed. Abuse and exploitation are common among young females and males.
Corruption, which negatively impacts economic growth, encourages police harassment of youths, limits education and job opportunities for those who refuse to pay bribes, and negatively affects service delivery, is rampant.
Poverty, which prevents young people from accessing higher education, is linked to negative youth outcomes such as crime, teenage pregnancy, and depression.
The education system does not adequately prepare young people for the job market, which few people can get access to, especially at the secondary school and tertiary levels.
Although successive governments have come up with programmes aimed at empowering the youth, the impact has been minimal. There is the National Youth Enterprise Fund, the discredited Kazi kwa Vijana and Uwezo Fund.
The challenge has been that those charged with managing these initiatives have failed the youth.
The Kazi kwa Vijana initiative, for example, collapsed due to mismanagement and corruption.
The Youth Enterprise Fund has been around for years, but its impact is limited because of the stringent lending terms that have dissuaded youth from asking loans, especially in rural areas.
And the Uwezo Fund seems to be limping and its impact has yet to be felt.
In the Kenyan context, changing attitudes about the role of young people in society and providing them with real opportunities to participate and express themselves must be a fundamental principle of youth development.
Equipping youth to become more productive and to reflect the needs of industry and the labour market is crucial.
Unless these many gaps are addressed, conflict, violence, and a missed generation for development will be the cost of neglecting Kenya’s youth.
Prof Mogambi, a development communication and social change expert, teaches at the University of Nairobi: [email protected]