Beyond the street protests: Youth, women and democracy in Latin America

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Of the 600 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 26 percent are aged 15 to 29. Photo: UNDP/Peru

Recently we invited three young women parliamentarians from Latin America and the Caribbean to join a discussion in Salamanca, Spain, on young women’s political participation in the region. That’s what Paola Pabón from Ecuador, Silvia Alejandrina Castro from El Salvador and Gabriela Montaño from Bolivia have in common. They are among the very few women in parliaments and they are young: they broke a double glass ceiling.

Of the 600 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 26 percent are aged 15 to 29. This is a unique opportunity for the region’s development and for its present and future governance. Even though the average regional rate of women in parliament is 25 percent, higher than the global average, a closer look shows that women still lag behind.

Our recent survey of 25 parliaments in Latin America and the Caribbean shows a very low representation of youth in the region’s parliaments – especially those of African or indigenous descent. Only 2.7 percent of male parliamentarians in the region and 1.3 percent of women MPs were under 30 years old. Our regional Human Development Reports have shown that young people have enormous potential as agents of change. But despite Latin America’s remarkable progress in reducing poverty and inequality—and its strides toward democracies with free and transparent elections—​​gender, income, ethnic origin or dwelling conditions are all decisive barriers to young citizens’ rights and civic engagement.

One in every four young people in the region is poor or extremely poor. And only 35 percent of them have access to education. More worrying still: some 20 million young Latin Americans aged 15-18 neither work nor study. That’s nearly one in every five.

The region’s youth have been taking to the streets, playing a central role in recent protests in countries like Brazil, Chile, Peru and Mexico. The increasing frequency of such mobilizations tells us that young people want to actively participate in their society’s development. The first Ibero-American Youth Survey—which we launched last year— shows that young people in Latin America, Portugal and Spain expect their participation to increase over the next five years. Institutions should provide formal spaces for this, or protests will become the only effective way for young people to make their voices heard.

We are working towards this goal and brought together the region’s first young legislators’ network in 2013 to boost young people’s political participation and inclusion. Our online platform JuventudconVoz (youth voicesis also helping promote young Latin Americans’ political participation and leadership skills.

Protests sparked by young Latin Americans will likely continue in several countries. Beyond the street level, in the digital age of social media activism these protests also provide opportunities to rethink democratic governance in the 21st century.