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12 August - A Sierra Leonean group providing vocational training for disabled youth and a Palestinian forum setting up youth councils to influence the local government are among the 51 projects awarded grants from the United Nations for their efforts to empower young people.

The winning projects, which were selected from among 1,500 applications from 85 countries, were announced today, 12 August, which is observed as International Youth Day.

They showcase innovative ideas aimed at alleviating poverty, improving employment prospects for young people and increasing the participation of young people in democratic processes.

“My congratulations go to these youth groups for their outstanding projects,” said Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), which awarded the grants from its Urban Youth Fund.

“The winning applications contain innovative ideas that will truly contribute towards sustainable urbanization and I wish them every success in their projects and their future.”

The groups that qualify for the grants have to meet strict UN criteria and are required to report on results and effectiveness.

Mohamed Kamara, project coordinator for the Handicapped Youth Development Association (HYDA) in Sierra Leone, said the funds will help his organization better serve youth with disabilities in the West African nation which is rebuilding after a brutal civil war that ended less than a decade ago.

“We want to give them skills and build up the capacity of youth so that they can become productive members of society,” Mr. Kamara told the UN News Centre.

He added that the organization was founded in 1998 on the belief that disabled persons should be enabled to assist in the vital task of nation-building.

The organization was chosen for its Disability Is Not Inability initiative, a 10-month project targeting urban disabled youth in the capital, Freetown, with training courses in information and communication technology (ICT), entrepreneurship and vocational skills.

Mr. Kamara described the situation of disabled persons in Sierra Leone as “deplorable,” noting that they are subjected to marginalization, discrimination and human rights abuses. Therefore, HYDA – which has about 300 members – plays a vital role in trying to enhance the full and equal participation of young people with disabilities in society.

In addition to HYDA, grant recipients also include a Zimbabwean youth network empowering young slum dwellers to advocate for secure land tenure; a Haitian organization establishing an ICT training centre for youth; and an Indian youth group seeking to hold the local government accountable through young citizens' media.

The UN-HABITAT Urban Youth Fund awards eligible organizations grants of between $5,000 and $25,000. This year India, Kenya and Zimbabwe generated the greatest number of successful applicants under the programme, which awards grants worth close to $1 million annually.

The Nairobi-based agency, which works to ensure adequate shelter for all, estimates that of some 1 billion slum dwellers in the world today, more than 70 per cent are under the age of 30.

The announcement of this year's grant recipients coincides with the start of the International Year of Youth, which kicked off today with calls from UN officials to harness the talents and energy of the world's young people to promote better understanding and dialogue between different generations, cultures and religions.

Dialogue and mutual understanding is the theme of the Year, whose launch will be marked with speeches, musical performances, video screenings and poetry recitals at UN Headquarters in New York, as well as numerous events around the globe.