"I want to be part of the solution"

A growing number of young people cannot find work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, youth unemployment has increased worldwide. Emma Thokwana, 20, from South Africa, is a member of the Youth Advisory Board of YouthCan!

The global partnership YouthCan! is SOS Children’s Villages’ youth employability initiative. Emma explains the difficulties young people face seeking decent work and why she advocates to support youth.

What are your professional goals?

I am studying psychology and criminology and want to be a psychologist. What I want to do professionally is offer people my support so they can change their lives for the positive. I want to be an agent of change and inspire people to stand up for what they believe in.

What are the challenges you face?

My bursary helps finance my Bachelor degree but nothing beyond that. However, in South Africa, I have hardly a chance to find work as a psychologist without an honours or master’s degree. I might need to get a job unrelated to my profession to save money to get my honours degree before I can start as a practicing psychologist. But it will take some time to get to what I actually want to do because there is an employment crisis in South Africa.

Youth employment is particularly high in South Africa, increasing to 74% during the COVID-19 pandemic…

The labour market requires that people have professional experience but where should we get that from when we are leaving school or college or some sort of other educational journey? Therefore, young people are forced to do any job that is available to them with low wages, abusive working conditions and little job security. All the time, I see in my immediate environment the challenges young people are struggling with.

Can you say more about that?

One of the my sisters with whom I grew in the same SOS Children’s Village house, meaning not my  biological sister, had to take two jobs to provide for her own family. She worked hard with little money, 18 hours a day. She had one hour to rest between the two jobs and would come back late from the second job. She eventually quit one job because it was starting to take a toll on her.

What does it do to a young person if the pressure is so high?

One of my closest friends tried to commit suicide. She battled anxiety and depression. She did not talk about it and we did not pick up anything in her behavior as her friends either until when she took pills and tried to commit suicide. She could not take it anymore but what was more alarming was that she suffered the whole time in silence. Mental health has been and still is a sensitive issue to talk about, but I think that the more we talk about it the better.

What does it mean for us as a society if young people have limited prospects for the future?

Youth unemployment does not just affect young people but society at large and thus, all of us. The longer the crisis goes on, the more likely it is that young people risk to fail in their attempt to enter the labour market. So if we don´t tackle this issue, we as a society will face various social and economic issues. If young people have no opportunities, it can lead to substance abuse, crime and mental health issues.

What support can YouthCan! offer young people to enter the labour market?

YouthCan! supports young people who are either at a risk of or have lost losing parental care to move towards decent work and eventually self-reliance. YouthCan! includes different sub-programmes. In South Africa, for instance, there are programmes offering young people job shadowing and career guidance. This includes mentoring as direct support through employees of a company. All this helps to support young people on their path to employability.

YouthCan! also offers a digital platform through YouthLinks to allow participants and mentors to connect. How important is such a programme at times of lockdown and social distancing?

During the COVID-19 crisis, YouthCan! has made sure that young people still meet virtually to receive support. I think this is necessary for emotional support to those young people who might be feeling alone during this time. Personally, I am grateful for these experiences both globally and locally because it is encouraging to know that we are all in this together and I believe that we are stronger together.

What is your motivation to engage through the youth advisory board of YouthCan!?

I am convinced that the participation of youth can lead to a significant change in the world. I want to be part of the solution. I represent youth in my region on issues they face on a daily basis. Being a member of the Youth Advisory Board has made me realize that my voice matters.

Learn more:

  • Click here to find out more about the Youth Advisory Board.
  • Click here to find out more about YouthCan!

*Interview by Florian Staudt. Translation by Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber.