Empowering Young People in the Aftermath of Crises
Although peacebuilding processes often overlook them, young survivors of violent conflict are an important constituency for peace and reconstruction. The sheer numbers of young people make them a force to be reckoned with: About two thirds of the populations of Rwanda and Cambodia are under the age of 25.(32) Countries that do not invest in the skills and productive capacities of young people in the struggle to recover from war miss important opportunities to reduce poverty and forge a lasting peace.
But young survivors may first need help. Former child combatants are likely to need rehabilitation and family reunification services; psychological and physical health care; education and training; and opportunities to earn income. Young women who have been sexually abused and enslaved require gender-sensitive counselling and care. Those forcibly impregnated during a conflict need added supports to protect them and their children from stigma, impoverishment and further sexual exploitation when they return to their communities.
Former child soldiers have historically been left out of formal disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes, even though their numbers are significant. In Liberia, for instance, an estimated 15,000 children served in the war.(33) In Sierra Leone, children constituted nearly 37 per cent of the fighting forces in some armed factions.(34) Though the role of girls in conflict is often overlooked, they make up nearly half of all children involved with armed groups.(35) Girls-over 12,000 of them-comprised 25 per cent of soldiers in Sierra Leone.(36) Girls are recruited as soldiers, cooks, cleaners and, often, forced sexual partners, otherwise known as "bush wives". When they return to their communities, their families may reject them.(37) In their rehabilitation work with former child soldiers, UNICEF and other agencies have developed gender-sensitive demobilization programmes for girls such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia.(38) In Sri Lanka, UNICEF's work with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam led to a significant decrease in child recruitment.(39)
Whether they are former combatants or victims of war, young people are important to post-conflict justice and reconciliation. In South Africa, special hearings and workshops were set up so that children could testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.(40) In many countries, local community and religious leaders conduct traditional healing processes for children and adolescents as a means to reintegrate them into society.(41)
The emerging recognition of the neglect of young people's needs and rights, and of their crucial roles in post-crisis situations, is prompting countries to respond. Some have appointed special representatives for children or created ministries for youth. The Sierra Leone National Youth Policy, developed in partnership with young people, outlined their rights and responsibilities and set plans for a youth ministry, youth focal points in other ministries, and district youth committees.(42)
As the World Bank notes, young people are an "under-utilized voice" in addressing post-conflict concerns, who "can be resilient, resourceful, and responsive. . . . in addressing corruption and consequently improving governance in their countries." The Youth for Good Governance Distance Learning Programme was designed by the World Bank to train youth-in Uganda, the Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, among other countries-on good governance. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, youth groups organized successful anti-corruption campaigns and formed a youth party to demand better education and accountability.(43) In 2003, the Democratic Republic of the Congo formed a 36-member National Children's Parliament, with UNICEF support, charged with promoting children's rights and finding solutions to their problems.(44)
GETTING ON TRACK FOR THE MDGS: EDUCATION, HEALTH AND LIVELIHOODS. Young people need education, health care and counselling, vocational training and jobs in order to rebuild their lives following crises. If they cannot earn a living, they may be forced into survival sex, trafficking or other forms of exploitation. This undermines their own prospects for a better life and their country's chances for reaching MDG targets on education, HIV/AIDS and decent and productive work for youth.
Education is vital, both to give young people a sense of structure and ordinary life and to build a foundation on which their societies can grow. Half of the world's out-of-school children live in conflict or post-conflict countries. Girls may be kept home to care for siblings while their impoverished or widowed mothers seek the means to provide for the family. Girls may also be discouraged from attending school for fear of rape or abduction.(45) In Sierra Leone, participatory research with adolescents found that education was their top priority.(46)
UN agencies and civil society organizations have taken note and jointly developed minimum standards for education in emergencies.(47) Burundi's Education for Repatriation policy, supported by UNICEF and other international organizations, directs schools in refugee camps to follow a curriculum recognized by children's home countries.(48) In Sierra Leone, women's groups provide education and vocational training for young people, primarily ex-combatant girls.(49)