New Delhi: The International Youth Day 2021 (IYD2021) comes at a critical moment. The latest IPCC report has declared a red alert on climate change, the burden of which will be inherited by youth. The equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs was lost around the world due to the pandemic, according to data from the International Labour Organization. Several reports suggest worrying levels of mental health issues among young people. International Youth Day this year pins our collective hope on the innovation and engagement of young people in healing the health of the planet by engaging them in how we grow, eat and manage food.
For the uninitiated, the term food system implies the entire cycle from food production, processing, and marketing to consumption and utilization. On why it is in focus, Food Systems employ the largest number of people in the world. With global attention already captured through the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, it is only apt to focus on the role of youth in making food systems more dynamic, eco-friendly, and equitable, with greater participation of both young women and men across class and caste barriers.
Engaging Youth In Transforming Food Systems
Young people are on the frontlines of the struggle to build a better future for all. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire need for the kind of transformational change they seek – and young people must be full partners in that effort, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General
According to the recent report on ‘Promoting Youth Engagement and Employment in Agriculture and Food Systems’ by the Committee on World Food Security (CWFS), greater participation of young people in food systems will enhance the use of new technology, innovative practices, and knowledge sharing, and also increase gender equality and women’s empowerment, thereby making food systems more sustainable, resilient and equitable while at the same time improving food security and nutrition for all.
During the 2021 ECOSOC Youth Forum (EYF), the issues and priorities highlighted by young participants included the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly related to its effect on human health, the environment, and food systems. As part of the official outcome recommendations of the EYF, young participants stressed the importance of working towards more equitable food systems.
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In addition, they highlighted the need for youth to make informed decisions on food choices through increasing global education on the healthiest and most sustainable options for both individuals and the environment. There were also recommendations on providing adequate capacity development concerning the resilience of food systems, in particular during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and in its aftermath.
Through youth education, engagement, innovation, and entrepreneurial solutions, this year’s International Youth Day aims to provide a platform for young people to continue the momentum from the EYF in the lead-up to the high-level Food Systems Summit.
Focusing On Women’s Leadership
While we talk about enhancing young people’s participation in food systems, we must also remember that they are not a homogenous group, but a diverse one, impacted by the intersectionality of gender, class, ethnicity, among others. Gender is particularly important as it affects aspects like access and ownership of land, or roles played in cultivating crops or caring for livestock.
In India’s context, women’s role in the Food System is not very visible, despite their contribution, whether as farmers, gatherers, livestock keepers, sellers, and nurturers, preparing and serving food to household members.
Working to increase gender equity and women’s empowerment can help enhance their visibility and maximize the benefit from their involvement in food systems.
This is especially important in the context of COVID-19, the pandemic that has challenged food systems and affected access to food significantly across the world. Besides affecting livelihoods, incomes, and access to food, COVID-19 has also dealt a blow to gender equity, with women more likely to suffer the loss of livelihoods and reduced income than men. Moreover, periods of lockdown have been synonymous with the rising incidence of gender-based violence, Young women and adolescent girls are more susceptible to it.
The Government of India has focused on women’s economic empowerment to address gender inequity while cushioning poor households against COVID-19 related shocks. Cash transfers to women and additional funds and incentives to women’s self-help groups to enhance their economic activities and provide them market linkages are some such measures taken by the Government. These measures have increased the options for young women’s participation in food systems, which can, in turn, lead to a more equitable, gender-just society for all.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is contributing to the process through its gender-transformative programs in collaboration with the Government to enhance the incomes of women’s groups. In Odisha, WFP is partnering with the department of Mission Shakti to enhance incomes and market linkages of women’s self-help groups and women smallholder farmers in the state. In Uttar Pradesh, WFP is collaborating with the State Rural Livelihoods Mission to train women’s micro-enterprises in producing fortified nutritious Take Home Rations (THR) for young children and pregnant and lactating women, distributed under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. Such initiatives offer a great opportunity for young women to participate in food systems while empowering themselves economically.
Rajni Devi is one such young woman working in THR producing unit in the Fatehpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Her excitement reflects the value she accords to her new vocation. Sharing her joy she said,
I am really happy that I got a chance to work with this unit. It is a new learning for me each day. I believe that all women of my age must be educated and employed. It is important for young women to be financially independent.
Her colleague Snehlata agrees, emphasising the social benefits of women’s education and economic empowerment. She said,
I feel it is extremely important for women in society to be educated and earn income for the household. Earning income will not only provide support for household expenses, but we can also save money for future purposes. It is best if women are employed in some form, it will also help children in the family to be educated.
India has a critical role to play in creating a role to play in the emerging narrative to reimagine food systems and with a massive demographic dividend with 1.2 billion youth aged 15 to 24 years in the world, or 16 percent of the global population. India, however, ranks 122nd on the new Global Youth Development Index among 181 countries, released by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London
We must create an enabling environment for innovation, scaling, and adaptation that fosters opportunities for young people across the spectrum of food systems to usher in radical changes to heal planetary health.
(Dr Aradhana Srivastav, Gender Lead, United Nations World Food Programme in India.)
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