In El Salvador, the national youth policy and the rights of young citizens are established in the National Youth Policy (2011-2024), the Youth Action Plan (2011-2024) and the General Law of Youth from 2013. The National Youth Policy outlines the short-, medium- and long-term objectives of the government and defines six priority areas of intervention: (1) Education: Access, quality and building future human capital; (2) Employment, productive development and entrepreneurship; (3) Healthcare, risky practices and promotion of healthy lifestyles; (4) Culture, entertainment and sport; (5) Prevention of violence, public safety and peaceful culture; and (6) Youth participation and citizenship. The Youth Action Plan offers short-term strategic programs that meet the six defined priority areas and details the corresponding budget. The General Law of Youth defines the “fundamental rights of young people”, and emphasizes their “political, social, cultural and economic participation [...] in terms of equity and solidarity.”
The leading causes of mortality among youth in El Salvador are external, including homicides, traffic accidents and suicides. Young people of both genders are the primary victims of violence: In 2009, the homicide rate among youth aged 16-17 was 153 per 100,000 inhabitants. Moreover, sexual violence constitutes an important factor in the high rate of adolescent pregnancy. With regard to sexual and reproductive health, most youth face significant obstacles in accessing adequate health information and services. Low access to and quality of basic services, compounded by stereotypes and cultural attitudes, make young Salvadorans more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, HIV and sexual exploitation. Of all cases of HIV/AIDS in the country, 41% were recorded as being young people aged 15 to 19 years. In 2011, the adolescent fertility rate was 77.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19, making El Salvador a country with one of the highest rate of youth fertility in the world.
In the past decade, El Salvador made substantial improvements in terms of educational indicators. In 2013, the net enrolment rate in primary schools was 91%, the secondary net enrolment rate was 62% and the literacy rate of people aged 15-24 years was 97% in 2013. However, the country faces three major challenges in education: First, poor education quality that results in high drop-out rates and leaves a growing number of young people without basic knowledge and skills. In El Salvador, young people usually complete only six grades out of nine. Second, there is a persistent lack of equity in terms of access to quality education for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as urban and rural poor, minorities, youth of uneducated parents and indigenous girls. Third, a great number of young people, who abandon the education system for economic activities, are under growing exposure to youth gangs, crime, and poverty. Social mobility through educational attainments is limited, which reinforces an endemic situation of social inequality in El Salvador. According to the World Bank, El Salvador spent 15.9% of its government expenditure and 3.41% of its GDP on education provision in 2011.
In El Salvador, young people aged 15-24 account for 30% of the total labour force (2010). Both the youth unemployment rate (12%) and the youth underemployment rate (50%) are significantly higher than the national average. These figures, plus the growing phenomenon of young Salvadorans who neither study nor work (24.8%), point to the main challenge of young people to access productive and decent work: First, low levels of education and vocational training result in a mismatch between the skills of young graduates and those demanded in the labour markets. Second, slow growth and low productivity of El Salvador's economy cause a structural undersupply of decent employment opportunities for youth. High rates of youth unemployment constitute the major push factor for labour migration, informal work and the recruitment of young people for violent youth gangs or for lucrative involvement in illegal drug trafficking.
In El Salvador, poverty and the lack of access to quality education and decent job opportunities are the major push factors for youth emigration within the country and across international borders – the United States represents the main country of destination. High rates of migration have a significant impact on the youth who leave El Salvador as well as on those who are left behind. The former face increased exposure to discrimination and marginalization in the host society; due to their legal status young migrants have limited access to social services such as health care and social security. Those youth whose parents have emigrated in search of economic opportunities lack parental protection and are at high risk to become involved in youth gangs, criminal activities or substance abuse.
El Salvador had one of the highest rates of homicide in the world, with 61 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. In this context, youth are most at risk from violence, either as perpetrators or victims. More than 50% of the homicide victims are aged between 15 and 29 years; the majority of them are young men from poor urban areas, however, homicide rates for young women increased alarmingly in recent years. There are a number of risk factors contributing to high levels of youth violence and crime in El Salvador, including high rates of poverty, inequality, under- and unemployment and school drop-outs, dysfunctional family structures, easy access to arms, alcohol and illegal drugs, chaotic urbanization, and finally local gang structures and organized crime (especially drug trafficking). It is estimated that between 20,000 and 35,000 young Salvadorans belong to youth gangs, the so-called ‘maras’ – young members are 20 years old on average, with a mean entry age being 15 years. Social exclusion is a main factor for joining a gang, which represents an alternative source of stability, identity and livelihood. As part of the official ‘mano dura’ approach, the government approved an ‘anti-maras’ law in 2003, which criminalizes the membership of ‘maras’ and decreases the legal criminal age to 12 years. However, increasing rates of youth violence and public insecurity point to the ineffectiveness of current policies in addressing the structural roots of the problem. Successful interventions must combine integrated, comprehensive and cross-sectoral prevention strategies with existing control approaches, and tackle the issue of youth violence at the national and municipal level.
In El Salvador, a strong culture and practice of violence prevents young people from participating in the socio-economic and political development of the country. In the context of dominant youth violence and high rates of homicide, young Salvadorans face a structural exclusion from the public sphere. Their potential positive contribution to society is often considered to be irrelevant. Moreover, the government’s tendency to combat youth violence through repressive measures induces high levels of mistrust and resignation among young people towards the authority and institutions of the government.
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