Youth and Conflict: Challenges and Opportunities for Peacebuilding
This conference was focused on the positive roles youth have played within the broader context of achieving sustainable peace in conflict and post-conflict environments around the world. Panelists reflected on effective youth engagement in peacebuilding activities, examined strategies to more effectively promote and enhance the role of youth in conflict transformation, and provided insight into how successful programs can be supported and replicated in other areas of conflict.
The first panel looked at country-specific situations where youth have engaged in peacebuilding. Moonmoon Gulshan initiated the discussion by providing an overview of ActionAid Bangladesh's Integrated Development program for urban adolescents in the slums of Chittagong and Dhaka city. She noted that gender violence is one of the major issues affecting females between the ages of 10 and 19. Specifically, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area, conflict exists between indigenous and Bangalee adolescents over access to land and resources. Young women are often the most vulnerable victims.
To address this issue, ActionAid's Integrated Development Approach offers a variety of programs directed at training adolescents in proactive ways to resolve conflict and address violence in the community. Specifically, Gulshan noted that Stop Violence Against Women (SVAW) networks have been established in collaboration with local legal aid organizations to protect and provide support to victims of violence. In addition, a newsletter that features the literary and artistic creativity of adolescents from various indigenous communities has been created in an effort to bridge the gap between the communities in conflict.
Gulshan identified several obstacles that hinder youth engagement in conflict resolution programs, specifically, the politicization of ethnic and religious communities and the patriarchal system that restricts women's participation. However, ActionAids programs have begun to integrate male and female adolescent activities and have found that these youth are now making joint efforts to protest against and find solutions to gender based violence.
Thomas Katta noted that young people constitute 60 percent of the Sierra Leonean population, many of whom were centrally involved in the conflict as ex-combatants. Many of these youth are frustrated and concerned that the reconstruction efforts in Sierra Leone are not addressing the root causes of the ten year war. Consequently, Katta urged that youth should become an integral part of local and national governance in order to strengthen their commitment to and understanding of the issues of peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
During the war, Katta noted, youth were actively engaged in seeking peace in various ways. He described two such initiatives: the National Youth Peace Symposium, which brought together 100 youth leaders for three days of training on conflict resolution and peacebuilding in preparation for engaging Revolutionary United Forces (RUF) commanders in constructive dialogue; and the National Youth for Non-Violence Campaign in Elections that trained over 1,000 youth to advocate for non-violence amongst their peers during the elections.
However, in the post-war environment, Katta noted, youth have little opportunity to engage in peacebuilding activities at the national level. In fact, he identified significant political resistance to youth engagement and limited donor support for youth programs. Consequently, he emphasized the need to establish a forum for constructive dialogue between youth and donor organizations to determine how best to encourage direct engagement with youth organizations so that youth can more effectively and constructively engage in peacebuilding.
Philip Kollie explained that violence has become an ingrained behavioral coping mechanism amongst Liberian youth during the 14 year civil war. Consequently, one of the greatest challenges in the post-war period is effectively engaging Liberia's high concentration of idle and unemployed youth in peacebuilding activities.
To address this issue, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in Liberia has launched an Active Non-Violence and Conflict Transformation Program for youth in and around Monrovia. Kollie explained that this program has initiated 27 youth conflict mediation structures and 3 peace clubs in 45 schools and 14 communities in Monrovia. It provides over 650 students and 450 community youth with opportunities to become directly engaged in conflict prevention and management through a variety of peace clubs, tournaments and activities.
Kollie identified illiteracy and war trauma as two of the key obstacles affecting youth engagement in peacebuilding activities. Consequently, he noted that successful engagement of youth in positive transformation programs depends on the creation of an enabling, safe environment, providing multiple ways for youth to get involved and sustain their involvement and using dialogue as a healing tool. He recommended further investment in youth programs to strengthen existing youth non-violence and conflict transformation programs and investment in technical education such as leadership skills, community building skills, conflict management skills, civic education, and financial management.
Mike Wessells addressed the psychosocial and security dimensions of youth as peacebuilders. Recognizing that youth are often perceived as troublemakers, unruly, defiant and dangerous, he emphasized the cognitive, moral, social and spiritual capacities of youth who have the potential to contribute to a variety of diverse, constructive roles within the society. He highlighted the resilience and integration of youth through DDR processes that focus on youth skills, education, reconciliation and overall wellbeing.
Wessells noted the psychosocial impact of prolonged conflict on youth identity formation. He explained that engaging youth in peacebuilding efforts serves to address their feelings of fear, isolation, hopelessness and stigmatization, and in turn, contributes to the overall security of the community. To effectively empower youth, promote their competencies and resilience and positively affect their social roles, Wessells emphasized the need for peacebuilding at multiple levels of society including the family, school and community. Unfortunately, stereotyping, fear, adult unwillingness to share power and short-term funding hinder this type of comprehensive programming.
In the second panel, which looked at policy options to respond to the need to engage youth in peacebuilding, Geoffrey Oryema began by describing the situation in Northern Uganda. He noted that youth have been disproportionately affected by the fighting between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force. In fact, most of the 1.5 million people living in Internally Displaced Camps in the northern part of the country are youth. He said that in 1993, the Ugandan government formed the National Youth Council to provide a platform for youth to engage in the country's development process. Interestingly, while the Council recognizes various vulnerable groups of youth in need of special assistance, the Internally Displaced Youth (IDY) are not given official recognition.
Consequently, Oryema emphasized the need to strengthen the existing policies for IDY. Specifically, he recommended establishing an effective inter-agency coordination mechanism amongst donors who fund youth programs, creating a District Youth Peace Building Office to coordinate youth activities, conducting impact analyses to monitor the wellbeing of youth affected by conflict and actively engaging youth as participants in the peace process not simply as beneficiaries. In addition, Oryema highlighted the need to bring youth from different parts of the country together to engage in peace dialogues and conflict management training. Furthermore, he advocated for the provision of more substantive legal assistance and mental health services to victims of sexual violence.
Paul Sully spoke of his involvement in the EQUIP3/Youth Trust project at the Education Development Center that is part of the Educational Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP) Alliance funded by USAID. The purpose of this project is to prepare and engage male and female children and youth for their roles within the world of work, civil society and family life. Specifically, Sully addressed the challenges and opportunities of engaging youth in political and social peacebuilding activities in Afghanistan and Palestine.
Sully explained that the Afghanistan Literacy and Community Empowerment Program promotes youth groups that hold daily meetings to discuss community improvement ideas. Four self-initiated social and economic development projects have been completed. Similarly, the Palestinian Youth Empowerment Program encourages youth to identify their needs and take actions to meet these needs through engagement in positive political and social processes such as election awareness campaigns, environmental projects and social and civic engagement activities.
Specifically, Sully focused on "service–learning" as one of the most effective mechanisms for engaging youth in peacebuilding and reconstruction activities. He explained that service–learning increases youth awareness of the needs of others, effectively teaches social values, increases levels of personal and social responsibility and promotes youth willingness to be active in their communities.
Eric Tagne broadened the definition of conflict beyond war to include social "ills" such as poverty, illiteracy and HIV/AIDS, which he noted, are all sources of conflict. In that regard, he advocated for support of full youth employment by donors and political leaders as the primary way of strengthening youth engagement in peacebuilding. Tagne urged that employment and empowerment are needed for youth to be able to work on conflict prevention and resolution activities.
He noted that in Cameroon, the launching of the Youth Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers Project has served to bring together academics, practitioners, policymakers and youth from all over the country to create a national youth platform. This platform is intended to propose a collective program to address the needs of youth. To strengthen these efforts, Tagne advocated for enhanced participation of youth in state organizations, and he encouraged the creation of a youth forum to identify their concerns, priorities and recommendations on international development issues.
Tagne noted that electronic discussions and forums on the Internet are the best ways to engage young people worldwide. The internet, he argued, has been one of the main catalysts for the development of a youth platform among Cameroonians. He emphasized the fact that young people do not want to be perceived as a target group for whom employment must be found, but they want to be accepted as partners for development.
John Williamson identified "identity-development" and HIV/AIDS as two of the main challenges hindering youth engagement in peacebuilding. He emphasized the importance of planning and organizing youth programs to address the immediate needs of youth affected by conflict. Specifically, he highlighted the value of holistically analyzing the context in which youth are living including the social, cultural, economic, historical and political factors in the society. He advised paying specific attention to age and gender issues, conducting a sound labor market analysis and implementing a community-based project design to build trust and social integration.
In addition, he encouraged the incorporation of basic education, numeracy, literacy and livelihood skills training in youth programming to address the economic realities in which they live. Such an approach to programming is intended to meet the immediate, practical needs of youth while laying groundwork for longer term economically and socially viable communities. However, to be successful, Williamson noted the importance of participatory planning, inclusive programming and regular monitoring and evaluation of the intended and unintended project outcomes.