Lhakpa Quendren  

For Pawan Gurung, a 10th-grade student at Gelephu Middle Secondary School, the integrated youth centre has been his favourite place in Gelephu town for the past one year. His parents encourage him to focus on reading and engagement at the youth centre instead of spending time on mobile phones.

“Although our school has facilities, they are often occupied. So I come to the centre regularly with my friends to participate in various activities,” said Pawan Gurung. He is fond of playing basketball and volleyball. 

The Youth Friendly Integrated Service Center has helped address the problem for the parents in the town keeping children engaged in recreational activities. As more and more parents recognise the role of the centre in helping their children, hundreds of youth are making the most of the facilities.   

The Gelephu Youth-Friendly Integrated Service Center sees an increasing number of youths

At least 80 youth visit the centre  every day to play table tennis, chess, badminton, and basketball. Besides, they also engage in computer coding programmes, 3D design, dance, music, and reading, the centre’s manager, CB Subba, said. 

Since the installation of CCTV cameras on the campus five years ago, the space has remained the safest place for young people.

“In the past, there used to be fights among the youth and others on the premises. To address these issues, we collaborated with the police, and such incidents do not occur now,” CB Subba said.  

The centre provides services that schools cannot cover remaining a busy space for youth to engage in various activities after school hours and during vacations.

However, lack of budget, infrastructure, and human resources are hindering the centre from providing comprehensive services. The number of staff has been reduced from eight to three last year.

Sonam Lhamo, a parent, and resident of Gelephu said, “The centre is contributing to reducing youth-related drug and crime issues in the town.”

In addition to engaging youth in various activities, the centre is also a place where young people spend quality time having conversations with friends from different schools.

Loday Younten, 15, a graduate of Losel Gyatsho Academy, said that without safe places, young people near the border are at risk of getting influenced if not engaged meaningfully.

Parents, especially in major urban centres like Thimphu, worry that their children could get in trouble or come in conflict with the law since there is a lack of facilities to keep young people engaged. 

As per police record, 2022 registered the record number of youth involved in drug-related cases since 2018. More than 700 youths aged 18-24 years were involved in drug-related cases last year, which include Narcotics Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse. Cannabis or marijuana is the most abused drug while Thimphu registered the highest number of youth involved in drug cases.

One reason Thimphu residents said youth end up engaging in criminal activities is the acute shortage of recreational facilities for youth. 

“Almost all the sports facilities are private and they charge fees,” a parent in Babesa, Tashi Dorji, said. “So, out of options, our children remain at home unsupervised with their mobile phones because we have to go to work.”

Parents said that urgent investment in such facilities is critical to addressing the issue of juvenile delinquency.

Some parents suggested organising more youth camps and skilling programmes either in schools or by youth centres.

“Our youths could learn some basic skills like repairing electronic gadgets, plumbing, filming, and other skills,” a father of two, Pema Wangchuk said, adding that a month-long skilling course could help these young people develop interest in a particular trade to pursue as a career in future.

“One of the biggest challenges for youth today has remained finding a job, one that matches their skills or interests,” said a teacher.

Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate in 2022 was estimated at 28.6 percent which was an increase by 7.7 points compared to 20.9 percent in 2021, according to the Labour Force Survey Report, 2022. Of the 101,170 youth population, 8,496 youth were unemployed and actively seeking work.

The report stated that the youths lacked adequate qualifications required for the relevant employment in the market and the other major reason for unemployment was the mismatch of qualifications. 

Numerous skilling initiatives are underway to address such issues.

A USD 15 million project for the Skills Training and Education Pathways Upgradation Project (STEP-UP) was launched in 2018 to modernise and expand the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system while enhancing the vocational skills of high school students. As of the 2022-2023 academic year, STEP-UP has already trained over 4,422 learners, with an additional 1,519 currently undergoing training across various domains within six Technical Training Institutes (TTIs) and two Zorig Chusum institutes.

To equip adolescents and young people with employability skills and 21st century skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, team building skills, leadership skills, and communication skills among others,  the Adolescent Skills and Employability (ASE) Project was launched on May 20, 2022 in Thimphu.

Led by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development in partnership with Bhutan Youth Development Fund, Loden Foundation and UNICEF, the ASE project equipped at least 16,000 young people with 21st Century skills as of 2023.

The project is rolled out through 129 schools, 10 youth centres and seven  colleges across the country by using two programmatic approaches– UPSHIFT and UNISOLVE, initiatives of  UNICEF Bhutan and UNICEF Office of Innovation.

Increasing rural to urban migration is making the unemployment situation worse. There is a need to look at rural Bhutan for job creation. And that will require making agriculture viable and attractive to the young people.

With 199,111 young people aged 15 to 24, constituting 26 percent of Bhutan’s population, the youth unemployment rate is 15.9 percent in 2023, and rural-urban migrants tend to be more concentrated among youths according to the National Statistics Bureau. Growing mental health concerns and nutrition are as significant issues as substance abuse. 

Other challenges that youth face today include lack of access to quality healthcare in remote areas, the urban-rural education gap, mismatch of job opportunities with the skills, academic and societal pressures, substance abuse and addiction, and the digital divide, among others.

Almost four years after the education ministry started revising the National Youth Policy 2011 to ensure that all needs and concerns of youth are addressed, it still remains as a draft. The policy is divided into seven themes of youth protection, recognising the due right of the youth, opportunities and how to be responsible.” 

The revised policy will also re-define youth age between 10-24 years, explore means to protect adolescents and youth, have a national coordination mechanism for youth initiative and support youth groups.

The policy is expected to accommodate the youths’ emerging needs with changing times that require prioritising, and align the policy with the relevant policies like Child Protection Act and Domestic Violence Act. The policy once approved would strengthen coordination and collaboration among agencies that work with and for youth.

“Policy attention is also needed to ensure that services are accessible to all youths, regardless of their locations,” said 15-year-old Tashi Choden from Sarpang.

In partnership with UNICEF, Kuensel will publish a series of stories on children’s and young people’s issues as part of the new Country Programme Cycle and emerging priorities.