Youth and Volunteering

Youth and Volunteering

What is the issue and why is it relevant to volunteering?

Volunteerism is often the first experience of civic engagement for young people.

In many instances, volunteerism provides entry points for young people to determine their own priorities, set their own agendas and engage with young people or other actors. Volunteering may be a catalyst, particularly for young people, to participate in the political realm. It is particularly important for countries with younger populations and where rapid social change is leading to migration, loss of traditional structures and unemployment. 

Apart from altruism and hope for a better world, young people are driven by a multitude of reasons to volunteer including wanting to gain skills for future employment, to keep busy or for leisure only.  At the same time, young people report challenges and issues with volunteering in their communities and societies.

What are the challenges and opportunities?

Some of the issues, challenges and opportunities around youth and volunteering include:

  • Young people having the space to take action on their own self-organized priorities
  • Investments to help young people to build skills and enhance employability through volunteering
  • Active participation of young people in decision making spaces through volunteering
  • Ensuring long-term investments that could support young people volunteering to build skills and enhance employability




What is UNV doing?

UNV and partners led evidence-gathering processes in 2019 and 2020 to understand what volunteering is doing for the 2030 Agenda, including on the role of young volunteers including online consultations. UNV participates as a member of the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development (IANYD) and contributes to sessions at the ECOSOC Youth Forum to promote youth volunteerism under the UN Youth Strategy 2030. 

In 2022, UNV and the International Labour Organization (ILO) published a joint paper entitled ‘On the design of volunteer programmes to facilitate the entry and re-entry of young people into work’.

What does the evidence say?

Youth priorities

  • Everywhere, and every day, young people are already acting on the issues that affect them including climate change, peace, gender equality and economic empowerment. One billion people globally are active volunteers, and around 1 in three young people report that they are volunteering – nearly 600 million youth worldwide. 

  • Volunteerism is at the heart of how diverse groups of young people are passionately seeking social transformation around them. 

  • However, it is important to recognize youth volunteerism as a social contract where young people often do not have much say in how they are engaged or should be engaged. 

  • Often younger volunteers are expected to carry out the ideas of older generations, rather than making decisions themselves which can be frustrating. In many cultures and contexts, the term ‘volunteer’ has a negative connotation amongst young people who identify themselves with alternate terms like activist, intern, unpaid employee, etc. 




Inclusion and Participation

  • The lens you use to critically reflect can make youth volunteering look very empowering or disempowering for young people. Lack of leadership opportunities, protections and support for young people leave them open to a wide range of undesirable influences, including antisocial forms of engagement. 

  • In increasingly unemployed young populations, youth volunteering can be a negative or forced experience, putting young people in a state of ‘waithood’ or exploitation at the hands of their vulnerability or disadvantage.  

  • To break this vicious cycle, volunteering needs to be realigned to match the skills and experiences required for meaningful and decent employment. 

Women's leadership and representation

  • Volunteering is a great avenue that can facilitate women empowerment and inclusion in the public sphere of social interactions. 

  • It can allow them to express their capacities, develop their skills and increase their chances of social participation.

  • It can contribute to greater gender equality, to increase their visibility, and to reduce violence against women. 

  • Women volunteers in rural Uttarakhand, India, for example, formed ‘whole village groups’ which helped them engage local government officials, defend their rights, and become partners in improving their communities.

Gender and inclusion

  • Evidence from Nepal indicates how community-based volunteering has allowed women from similar marginalized backgrounds to support each other in relation to adolescent sexual and reproductive health and menstrual hygiene.

  • In Iran, women’s roles as Volunteer Health Workers have contributed to redefine their position in the public sphere and foster neighbourly mobilization so that both women and men are encouraged to actively exercise their rights as citizens. 

  • However, considerable evidence suggests how health voluntarism practices can be uneven and gendered, with a ‘triple burden’ over vulnerable women in fragile contexts who are expected to assume community duties on top of their own reproductive and productive responsibilities.

  • This prompts questions around the sustainability of poor women’s long-term involvement in community development projects, as highlighted by a female volunteer health promoter in Peru: “We have a lot of goodwill, but we still need to eat…”. 

  • Key findings from a study in Ethiopia also suggest that unpaid women health workers have heavy workloads on a daily basis often under precarious conditions, experiencing greater hardship compared to their neighbours. 


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