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Engaging youth in politics, one meme at a time

A look into youth as agents of societal change and a glimpse into a viral success story by a group of millennials in Maldives.

Ahmed Aiham
20 December 2018, MVT 09:55
Did you vote? Vote for representation, vote for your rights.GRAPHICS: AHMED AIHAM/MIHAARU
Ahmed Aiham
20 December 2018, MVT 09:55

The recent 2018 presidential elections, saw the somewhat unexpected introduction of a 'new player' that exerted considerable influence on the Maldivian political arena.

More relevant than some candidates, and certainly more memorable than some calls to action on canvas trails, 'memes' made an epic contribution on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as on messengers like Viber, Whatsapp, Telegram and more. Memes of different sorts were used to deliver assorted information via pictures and clever wordplay, sometimes simply making shameless plays for laughter.

For those who are perhaps less familiar with the reference, 'memes' typically consist of captioned photos that are more often than not, a form of parody or mimicry that youth use to express light-hearted banter on some very real and relevant topics, with some countries even outright banning the use of political memes.

The primary graphical representation for the 'Be Solih' handles. IMAGE: BESOLIH / INSTAGRAM

Perhaps the most noteworthy of all such pages here in Maldives was popular social media handle ‘Be Solih’. Targetting the youth demographic, 'Be Solih' proved that it was about more than wordplay and humour. Launched in time for the elections, the handle delivered viral (at least in the context of this relatively small island nation) ‘memes’ that gave a voice to the hundreds of youth who in turn, shared opinions and allegiances via humorous depictions across their newsfeeds.

That in mind, the prevalence of social media engagement amongst youth, especially on topics of political debate in time for elections, marks an important shift in societal discourse.

But why is this move particularly significant to the Maldives, and more so at this time?

Too young for politics, too old for ignorance

Young people are often excluded and overlooked as participants in the political arena in the Maldives. Growing up, youth are taught not to concern themselves with politics and it is often considered taboo to talk about such matters in school and at home.

Thus, although according to the 2014 census of Maldives, 37 percent of all resident Maldivians are aged 25 and below, this important demographic is systematically shunned away and disengaged from politics.

The issue is so serious, many NGOs and campaigns have cropped up, seeking to encourage awareness of governance and civic duty amongst youth.

Transparency Maldives' Ahid 'Aadhu' conducting a session on Governance during Dhi Youth Movement (DYM)'s 'Youth Development Sessions' in 2015. PHOTO: DHI YOUTH MOVEMENT

So the question remains, why haven't the youth gotten a say in what they want for their future?

Meaningful democracy = meaningful participation of youth

Living in a society where older generations have fostered an ideology of ignorance within the youth places near-impossible expectations on them.

As these generations begin to face adult responsibilities, the lack of adequate youth involvement in policy-making shackles them to predetermined sets of choices, setting an unfortunate precedent for political alienation.

This, in turn, proves detrimental to the future of these 'voiceless' youth.

Effective youth involvement will not only help young people better navigate their journey and evolve towards choices that are not just the norm, but makes room for decisions that are better suited to current times and are more sensible in modern contexts.

In this way, elections are without a doubt one of the most important outlets in which all citizens are afforded the chance to carve a path for their country and themselves to stride forward.

Yet how many of our teenagers and twenty-somethings proudly declared their intention not to vote? How many lost hope and were disenfranchised from voting? How many claim to have cast an invalid vote?

Civic education

Civic education empowers individuals to be well-informed and active citizens in society. It plays a crucial role in any democracy and equips ordinary people with knowledge about our democracy, how it functions and how to engage in civic society.

Civic education teaches us what we as individuals can do to protect and promote democratic values and uphold the democracy we're in. It teaches us to understand our role and responsibility as shareholders of this system.

Are you, reading this article, aware of the fundamental rights guaranteed to you in Chapter 2 of the Constitution?

For those who don't, civic education teaches you about policies, including one of the most important legislative documents in any country: the Constitution.

Perhaps greater emphasis on civic education would have resulted in less cheer for the proud cries of those refusing to vote, and more so expressing distaste over a lack of national responsibility. Food for thought, certainly.

All this talk about policies but what are policies??

Policies contribute to defining everything from the standard of life of an individual, the general price and provision of education, of rent, of healthcare and so forth.

Hence, it is the responsibility of the collective society to take part in the dialogue and pave the way for reform.

In order to provide a dignified life for every man and woman, it is crucial that political decisions including both partisan and non-partisan politics have an equal representation of all majority and minority groups.

Moreover, it is a stance that must be inclusive of age and other relevant factors.

The global influence of youth

According to AdvocatesForYouth, the number of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 amount to 1.1 billion individuals worldwide, constituting 18 percent of the global population. Together, youth and children including all those aged 24 years and younger, account for nearly 40 percent of the world's population.

Geographically speaking, the largest population of youth is concentrated in Asia and the Pacific. Approximately 60 percent of youth live in Asia, 15 percent in Africa, 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, while the remaining 15 percent live in other developed countries and regions.

UNFPA and the National Bureau of Statistics Maldives (NBS) estimate that not only are those aged 15 - 35 years the largest bulk of the population in Maldives, numbers are set to double by the year 2050.

Being the change you want to see

Coming back to social media engagements, in recent years, young adults and in particular, millennials in this country, have used these digital platforms to express themselves in a way that is heard, their voices resonating louder than it has for many decades, and their concerns kickstarting a much-needed conversation towards reform.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the internet has become an integral platform for youth to sustain social movements and advocate for social change.

Maldives' own digital experiment in youth-based social campaigning, the 'Be Solih' movement certainly deserves all the limelight it has gotten in this regard.

Despite primarily serving as a campaign forum for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during the 2018 presidential elections, it played a key role in appealing to the youth demographic by utilising the tool the content creators knew best - humour.

However, the social handle did far more than sway minds in favour of a particular candidate.

Advocating for young people to go out and cast their votes, 'Be Solih' urged young men and women to take part in the presidential elections and exercise their right to be heard.

Be Solih encourages young people to perform their civic duty. IMAGE: BE SOLIH / TWITTER

Above all, the campaign lobbied the youth to be part of the change they envisioned for their country by voting responsibly.

Although the graphic depictions were created with specific demographics in mind, 'Be Solih' garnered responses not just from young folk but from people of all ages and varying ideologies.

Over the course of a few weeks, the memes were at the epicentre of lively debate and discourse between users from different political factions across Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

The YOUth of tomorrow

"Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects." – Paulo Freire

As a first-time voter, it is individuals that envision beyond the typical, like the minds that drove the 'Be Solih' movement, that inspire hope for the future.

A nostalgic song about the hope of a nation, brought to viewers in distinctly modern form, with a funny twist. IMAGE: BESOLIH / INSTAGRAM

In the six years I spent among civic society, engaging in fields of governance, conservation and youth empowerment, this writer found hope in the refuge of efforts made by those striving towards the formation of a more inclusive and tolerant society, one where discourse is admired and dissent is shunned.

Thanks largely to the help of initiatives like 'Be Solih' that promote youth participation in policy level decision making and encourage young people to exercise their voting rights, it hardly seems far-fetched to declare that the YOUth of tomorrow is set to lay the foundation of our common future, today.

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