Youth and Global Violence: Saving History’s Largest Generation of Young PeopleJuly 9, 2014 By Moses Jackson
As the largest-ever generation of young people enters adulthood, armed conflict is having a profound effect on their future. People under the age of 24 comprise nearly half the world’s population but are the primary participants in conflict today. Conflict is more prevalent in younger societies, and half of all forcibly displaced people are children.
“Young men and women everywhere want to be safe, educated, and respected,” said Anne Richard, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) last month. But for those fleeing deadly clashes in Syria and South Sudan, unending military service in Eritrea, or crime and poverty in Central America, such a life may seem out of reach.“Girls suffer from isolation; boys feel hopeless and humiliated…an entire generation has been impoverished, traumatized, and risks being lost”
More than half of school-age children in Syria no longer attend classes and nearly half of all Syrians have been driven from their homes, says a recent UN report. “Girls suffer from isolation; boys feel hopeless and humiliated,” said Richard. “As many have pointed out, an entire generation has been impoverished, traumatized, and risks being lost.”
When prospects appear bleak, many turn to violence. While a number of international development initiatives aim to prevent young people from becoming ensnared in conflict, efforts must be improved, said a panel of experts brought together by USIP and Mercy Corps.
For Love or Money…or an Education
Efforts to understand and address today’s “epidemic of youth violence” have grown increasingly sophisticated, said Steven Heydemann, vice president of applied research on conflict at USIP. While past development and humanitarian interventions were “mechanical,” amounting to little more than “throwing money at a problem,” more recent interventions are grounded in empirical evidence and “clearly defined theories of change,” he said.
Different types of violence require different responses, said Rebecca Wolfe, director of Mercy Corps’ conflict management and peacebuilding program:
For example you see in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan that there were short blips of interethnic violence motivated by financial incentives. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we see longer ideological wars focused on extremism. And in Liberia, Uganda, and now South Sudan – where UNICEF is reporting 9,000 child soldiers – we see civil wars fueled through significant child soldier recruitment.
The factors that compel young people to participate in conflict are complex and can vary significantly from case to case, said Wolfe. In Syria, “it was the emotions that were driving people to participate in violence – particularly the adolescent boys,” she said. “They talked about humiliation and protection of their families; it wasn’t this cost-benefit analysis.”
The U.S. Institute of Peace and Mercy Corps hosted a joint discussion on youth and violence on June 9
“We know increasingly that it’s not a single risk factor,” said Maryanne Yerkes, a senior civil society and youth advisor at USAID. “It’s a combination of risk factors at multiple levels that are involved, from the individual level, to the relationship level, community level, and societal levels.”
Risk factors, like economic hardship, must be weighed against protective factors, like education, she said. Similarly, push factors, like “the devastation of family and social structures,” must be contrasted with pull factors, like “the need for a sense of identity and safety.”
Problems arise when youth are excluded from society, said Marc Sommers, a former Wilson Center fellow and current visiting researcher at Boston University’s African Studies Center. In Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood, which he finished at the Wilson Center, Sommers found that lack of youth voice and participation can lead not only to violence but also urban migration, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, underage motherhood, fatalism about contracting HIV, and work in informal sectors, including crime.
Cultural exclusion can occur in war-torn societies where disruptions to normal life are so severe it becomes “almost impossible to be recognized as an adult,” said Sommers. Systemic exclusion “can emerge directly from education systems that make advancing beyond primary school exceptionally difficult.” And demographic exclusion, the result of “unprecedented youth populations,” reduces the prospects for getting an education or a job.
Lessons From Kenya, Somalia, and Afghanistan
Poorly designed interventions risk doing more harm than good in these contexts, said Sommers. “If you end up working to give jobs to included youth – the elite youth – this is a symbolic statement toward excluded youth, and it can really exacerbate the responses that excluded youth are engaged in.”
Research conducted by Mercy Corps and USAID on Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 and 2008 found that “youth who were unemployed were more likely to participate in violence; youth who participated in collective action or community service were less likely to engage in political violence; and youth who identified more with their Kenyan identity versus their ethnic identity were less likely to participate in violence,” said Wolfe. These findings informed Yes Youth Can, a USAID-funded program designed to prevent the violence from repeating itself in the 2013 elections, which Wolfe said has had significant positive effects.Poorly designed interventions risk doing more harm than good
But while the Kenyan case seems relatively intuitive, others are not, said Wolfe. In Somalia, research for Mercy Corps’ USAID-funded Somali Youth Leaders Initiative found that unemployment and education levels had little bearing on youth participation in political violence and that civic engagement and self-efficacy were associated with increased participation in political violence.
The unemployment findings were not surprising, said Wolfe, since “financial incentives are likely not a main motivator for participation in ideological conflict,” like the one seen in Somalia, where government and international forces have been fighting the Islamist group Al Shabab (“the youth” in Arabic). But the other results were surprising, prompting program designers to change tack by focusing more on providing role models for peaceful change.
“The idea is that in places like Somalia, most people see change happening through violence…if there are examples of how people – and young people in particular – can make change through non-violent means, they may take that opportunity,” she said.
Evidence from Afghanistan also defied expectations. A U.K.-funded vocational program implemented by Mercy Corps sought to increase employment under the assumption that greater economic opportunity leads to greater stability. The program succeeded in providing jobs, said Wolfe, but “we did not see a direct impact on propensity to engage in violence.”
“This does not mean that these development interventions…are not important in their own right,” said Wolfe, “but they may not directly impact stability in every case.”
Providing a Path Forward
Besides ending conflict altogether, what can governments and the international community do to provide an alternative path for young people? According to Sommers, efforts should begin with understanding how young people gain social recognition as adults – and what happens if they fail.
Transitions to adulthood play out differently in different places. During the First Intifada, for instance, “Palestinian male youth were using violent resistance to the Israeli military as a contemporary rite of passage into manhood.” Young men were “welcomed as heroes” after being imprisoned or beaten by Israeli forces, and young women were able to “boost their profile” through “stoicism and silence.”
Marc Sommers on his research in Rwanda and the struggle for adulthood
By contrast, in Rwanda, where males traditionally gain acceptance as adults by building a home, an acute housing crisis after the genocide made it “virtually impossible for most youth to become adults,” he said. The crisis fueled migration to cities and contributed to an overabundance of urban youth – many of whom “are known as ‘wanderers,’ or hopeless youth, and have a potentially dangerous profile.”
There are very different dynamics at play in the Palestinian Territories and Rwanda, but in both circumstances young people need viable alternative paths to adulthood that do not involve violence, said Sommers.
Involving young people more in the design of interventions that are supposed to affect them is a good place to start, said Yerkes. “Too often the people who set policy and programming priorities for youth do not interact with them,” agreed Sommers.
Yerkes called for “a comprehensive plan for addressing youth development concerns generally,” which would entail “not only looking at those youth that are disaffected, but also the broader community.”
A holistic conception of “youth resilience” can create space for more innovative thinking, she said:
The way that we frame these conversations, a lot of times it’s youth and violence, it’s youth and extremism, it’s the youth bulge, and while those are important ways to understand these problems, the mental constructs themselves can sometimes result in a narrowing of our programs.
“Agents of Positive Change”
“Clearly the trends and statistics are quite sobering, however there is hope,” said Yerkes.Involving young people more in the design of interventions that are supposed to affect them is a good place to start
Not only have significant gains been made in understanding the drivers of youth violence and its effects on participants, but “maybe more importantly we’re seeing that young people themselves are stepping up and demanding to be involved in this conversation, and demonstrating that they are and can be agents of positive change,” she said.
“Many youth demonstrate a level of tenacity, focus, and entrepreneurial ingenuity which is really striking,” said Sommers. They have “an ability to resist engagement in violence, even in the face of humiliating and desperate circumstances.”
Considering the conditions faced by many in this generation, perhaps the question should be, why are so many young people so peaceful?
Sources: Mercy Corps, Syrian Center for Policy Research, U.S. Institute of Peace, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN International Children’s Emergency Fund, UN Population Division.
Photo Credit: A teenager who was stabbed in Syria while going to school, courtesy of Jabal Mohsen/Matchbox Media Collective. Video: U.S. Institute of Peace and Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.