Youth in Solomon Islands have been marginalised for too long, but there are ways forward, Anouk Ride writes.
Political discourse and representation in Solomon Islands are dominated by older men, making it easy to forget that this cohort of influential people are, in fact, the minority of the population. With seven in 10 Solomon Islanders under age 34, Solomon Islands’ youth population is particularly visible on the streets of Honiara, where large groups of young people can be seen in public spaces and at events.
There are, however, few youths in positions of influence or formal decision-making structures in Solomon Islands. Youths are rarely seen in politics and government, and are less likely to be employed.
This situation is shaped by economics and politics, as well as social norms that may support or obstruct their participation in these realms. The cultural diversity of Solomon Islands makes generalisations about social norms difficult, but it is commonly believed that youth must obey their parents and respect elders. In practice, this norm means that youth are often relegated to low status work as labourers.
This happens on a family level where youth will often be busy running errands and doing chores, leading to a feeling that they have little agency over their lives. In the formal economy, businesses take advantage of the low status of young women, intentionally hiring them to do low-paid work in shops, bars, and casinos.
There has been a lot of talk at the political level about youth unemployment, but little action. Youth struggle to find stable, fulfilling employment, both in Solomon Islands and overseas, with many educated workers now doing menial tasks under seasonal and other non-ongoing arrangements.
In 2019, the government took over the administration of the successful Youth at Work project – which aimed to support young people into formal employment or entrepeurship – before sidelining and ultimately discontinuing it.
Moreover, the ability of youth to influence political decisions about work, foreign investment and employment is limited. It is common for established members of parliament to spend nominally apolitical constituency funds, as well as their own business profits, during elections.
Youth vying for election generally do not have access to either the funds or the status to ‘buy their way in to the game’ of running for national office.
Instead, youth leaders emerge at the local and provincial levels, often by working in partnership with established leaders and running local projects or services. For instance, there are currently some people under 35 years of age who serve as members of provincial assemblies. An analysis conducted in 2016 found that young women who are able to demonstrate service to their community, have support from chiefs, and are better educated, are able to win support in elections as community officers.
However, this local influence has not yet translated to increased representation in governmental structures and more formal decision-making processes, such as national government committees.
One major barrier for young Solomon Islanders, particularly young men, is that they are often characterised as ‘conflict risks’. However, as a recent report pointed out, blaming “wayward youth” for riots conveniently shifts the blame away from the adults and systems that socialise young men into violence.
However, young people today have more access to education and information than older generations and can find new ways to express their needs and aspirations. Increased access to education and new communication technologies provide opportunities for youth to engage with political discussions and civil society activities.
Civil society advocacy, particularly through social media in urban areas, is contributing to an increase in some young people’s political engagement on a variety of issues, including anti-corruption, the environment, climate change, and transport.
Young women are also being heard in more forums. For years, young women have endured a sort of invisibility, with many youth projects involving more men than women. Of the few women’s projects that exist, young, unmarried women have rarely been targeted, and reporting by gender, in the absence of age breakdowns, obscures whether or not young women are reached.
However, targeted programs for young girls, at least in urban and peri-urban areas, are increasing. Examples include established local non-government organisations (NGOs), such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, and newer initiatives, such as international NGO projects focusing on the safety and health of young women.
A number of international organisations like the World Bank, are also investing in efforts to specifically identify barriers young women face to employment, which is an encouraging sign of more intersectional approaches to gender and social inclusion.
However, more can be done. The connection between youth organisation and development needs to be strengthened, particularly in rural areas.
In various rural areas, youth groups are active, often organising sporting, cultural and economic activities. These groups can build trust and engagement among youths that can potentially broaden into other activities. Unfortunately, these networks tend to get little support from the development sector.
Encouragingly, many local community decision-making structures are inclusive of youth. For example, many councils of chiefs around the country have youth representatives in their decision-making meetings. Solomon Islands Development Trust, the oldest local NGO working nationally on development, has mandated youth representatives in their village committees and activities for a long time, and other agencies with committee work are frequently adopting this practice.
Layers of youth disadvantage, and the invisibility of young women, require further attention. This includes greater youth participation in research, policy and planning, and mandating their inclusion in decision-making processes. Policymakers need to pay particular attention to the specific disadvantage of young women, the establishment of activities for youth to inform and lobby elected representatives about their concerns, and levels of investment in youth employment and entrepreneurship programs.
Through these actions, Solomon Islands has the potential to transform the general view of young people from ‘risk’ to asset.
This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.