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State of World Population 2010

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Chapter Five

Youth: the future of post-conflict societies

In the late afternoon and evening on the beachfront of Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, school-age boys and young men with time on their hands gather to pass the time swimming or fishing or just lingering among vendors and others working along the waterfront. Timor-Leste has a lot of young people, as do other countries rebuilding after conflict.

Haitian children sing before dinner at the Garden of Patience orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  ©VII Photo/Lynsey Addario

The challenge is involving them in the task, and in equal partnership between men and women. More than a third of Timor-Leste’s total population of about 1.1 million is between the ages of 10 and 24, and the median age of Timorese is about 22. The country’s population growth rate, estimated to be about 3.3 per cent annually, is almost double the world average.

In Timor-Leste, fully independent only since 2002, jobs for young men and women should be an urgent priority in post-conflict policies, says Ameerah Haq, who as Special Representative of the Secretary-General heads the United Nations mission there. In the absence of jobs, youth crime has been on the rise in the country, and martial arts groups have turned into street gangs, responsible for more public crimes, in markets and along roads, according to a 2010 report from EWER, the Early Warning and Response project created in 2008 as a partnership between Belun, a Timorese non-governmental organization working to strengthen civil society, and the Center for Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York.

The conflict that ended in 1999 laid waste to an estimated 70 per cent of the local economy, which is still heavily based on small-scale agriculture. Timor-Leste is not poor in natural resources; it has significant income from oil and gas development in the Timor Sea shared with neighbouring Australia. But this has not created many jobs or fostered industrial growth in Timor-Leste. Haq is looking for ways to encourage entrepreneurship, however small scale and especially among women, many of whom are young.

[20] Young people’s livelihoods pivotal to crisis recovery and prevention

Access to safe, dignified and sustainable livelihoods for young people is vital to their protection and reduces their risk of exploitation and abuse. Promoting economic opportunities for youth through market-driven non-formal education, vocational skills training, income-generation activities, micro-credit schemes and agricultural programmes can play an important role in encouraging young people to contribute to society and helps strengthen their capabilities.

The importance of viable livelihoods for young people is underscored by the fact that a country emerging from civil war faces a 44 per cent chance of returning to conflict within five years if economic growth does not occur. Providing livelihoods to youth is an integral part of peace consolidation and economic development. As the majority of refugees today are displaced for an average of 17 years, an entire generation could lose the opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to rebuild their communities and countries. Despite this, young people are among the most underserved of crisis-affected populations; the international community needs to make a concerted effort to ensure that the potential of young people is not lost in complex humanitarian situations.

In one study, 60 combatants interviewed who represented 15 armed forces in different countries in West Africa unanimously identified crippling poverty and hopelessness as key motivations for becoming combatants. A 16-year longitudinal study of former child soldiers in Mozambique found that while they seemed to be doing well, all reported that their daily economic situation has been, and continues to be, one of the major obstacles to their transition to civilian life.

While the focus in emergency situations is often on the provision of food and shelter, many youth lack productive and engaging activities that give them skills and hope for the future. Most crisis and early-recovery situations lack integrated livelihood interventions.

Source: Youth Zones, by Governess Films in association with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission

In facing a demographic challenge at the same time that its people are still recovering from the scars of occupation, an economic slump and periodic outbreaks of political violence, Timor-Leste is not alone. In the world today, more than 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 25. By some accounts 3.6 billion people are under the age of 30, more than half the global population. In developing countries generally, and in nations emerging from conflict and disaster in particular, young people account for a large proportion of the national populations, giving them a huge stake in the future. In post-conflict areas, their young lives may have been shattered by violence, deaths of close family members, displacement from their homes and in many cases coerced recruitment into armies and rebel movements. Girls have not escaped conflict, as armed fighters have abducted them, some in their school uniforms walking to classes, and turned them into sex slaves, cooks, porters and other auxiliaries tasked with back-breaking and soul-destroying work.

[21] Youth’s access to family planning at risk during conflicts and emergencies

Responding to family planning needs during emergencies is vital. Young people are affected by the loss of normal family and social support mechanisms, and systems for providing family planning information and services may be disrupted or inaccessible. Young women and girls are a high-risk group, particularly in emergencies when they may be compelled to engage in high-risk sexual behaviours, such as trading sex for food or security, or to meet their own needs or those of their families.

In any setting, but particularly during emergencies when family planning needs may not be prioritized, young people have the right to receive accurate and complete information about sexual and reproductive health, including family planning, and to access services. This will help them make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual behaviour. But in many situations, parents and other adult community members may be reluctant to discuss contraception with young people because of cultural or religious norms that prohibit sexual relations before marriage. Health workers may also be unwilling to provide family planning information or services to young people, particularly to those who are unmarried, because of their own personal beliefs or due to cultural pressures.

In any displaced population, approximately 4 per cent of women of childbearing age (15-44 years) will be pregnant at a given time.  A study of 575 adolescents in a refugee camp in northern Kenya found that 70 per cent were sexually active and engaged in unplanned and unprotected sexual intercourse. More than 60 per cent of the world’s maternal deaths occur in ten countries, nine out of ten of which are in the midst of or in the aftermath of war.

A recent study found that conflict-affected countries receive 43 per cent less reproductive health funding than non-conflict-affected countries, and family planning funding for conflict-affected countries fell from $20.1 million in 2004 to $1.9 million in 2006.

Source: Youth Zones, by Governess Films in association with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission

Returning youth to a life even close to normal is the first priority where violence has engulfed children. Relief workers say that children respond to some sort of order in life: a classroom, organized sports or playtime, regular meals. In the longer term, young people, once reintegrated and given the benefits of education and training, have the best chance of insuring that their communities and countries can develop in peace. They have years ahead of them to work at changing the conditions, attitudes, cultures and sometimes the politics that led to conflict. Moreover, many younger children will be following them into adulthood and looking to today’s youth for direction. High fertility rates in societies where reproductive health services are not always accessible or tradition favours large families create a youth bulge in national population profiles.

According to the World Bank, when the percentages of children from birth to age 14 are calculated in the post-conflict countries or territories sampled for this report, only Bosnia and Herzegovina has a demographic profile in common with other developed nations, with 15.7 per cent of its people in that 0-14 age group. In Liberia, Timor-Leste and Uganda upwards of 40 per cent or more of the population ranked in the birth-to-14 age group. In Haiti, 36.7 per cent of the people are under 14. In the West Bank and Gaza, an estimated 42 per cent of the population is under the age of 15.

Young people can be a “demographic dividend” for years to come, providing the labour and skills needed to rebuild cities, economies and lives—but only if governments with many priorities do not overlook the training and health of youth. Overcoming the deeply rooted trauma of conflict, restarting interrupted education systems and creating new sources of production and income will fall heavily on the young over coming decades.

It is not easy work when the young still bear psychological scars. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic tensions continue to fester 15 years after peace was established in 1995. In October 2009, for example, a scuffle between Croats and Bosniaks after a soccer match resulted in the death of a 24-year-old fan. The incident distressed Dubravka Salčić-Dizdarević, a physician at the National University Hospital in Sarajevo and one of Bosnia’s leading psychotherapists, who said in an interview that, seeing youth motivated by raw ethnic hatreds of an earlier generation, she fears for the future of the country, which has not yet completely emerged from the trauma of the 1990s.

Salčić-Dizdarević, who is also Medical Director of the Center for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims in Sarajevo, founded in 1997, has seen trauma transferred to children in many cases. “Victims are not only the people who have been directly tortured during the war,” she said. “Torture also has the aim of victimizing the whole family.” A Bosnian survey estimated that 200,000 people had experienced torture in the war and that about 30,000 people died as victims of torture in detention. “Our centre has received for treatment about 10,000 people in 13 years, and the average time spent in the rehabilitation process is about three years,” said Salčić-Dizdarević, who remained in Sarajevo during the 1992-1995 war and was among the first specialists to begin intensive work with war victims. In the process, the children and spouses of victims are also treated for trauma, some belatedly. The time for healing is not over.

Saliha Ðuderija, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Assistant Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, says that the issue of compensating abused women had not received the official attention it deserved.
©VII/Antonin Kratochvil

Saliha Ðuderija, Assistant Minister for human rights and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was equally alarmed at the outburst of youthful football fan violence, and also at the spectacle of one ethnic group closing ranks to protect the alleged assailant.“Society is becoming tolerant of this,” she said in an interview. “What kind of a country are we when a community protects a criminal?”

But there are also very positive developments. There is an annual multi-ethnic Kids’ Festival in Sarajevo, a project of UNICEF, supported by several governments. The festival brings together artists, musicians, filmmakers and authors of children’s books from across Europe to provide an enriching few days of cultural events. For the second year, children were invited in 2010 to write on a “wall of wishes and demands” to let their leaders know what they think their communities need. Children were promised a chance to meet later with influential adults to discuss their concerns. The Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina has begun a pilot project in 10 municipalities on the social protection of children, and involved them in community affairs, including advocating for their rights.

Young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who have travelled around Europe and abroad, have been joining in activities in the Balkans region to break down ethnic barriers. In May 2010, young Bosnians attended the fourth annual Days of Sarajevo Festival in Belgrade, the capital of the Republic of Serbia. There they took part in panels on not only such timely topics as violence at sports events but also on more general issues of concern. One of the panels, held at the aptly named Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade, was titled “How to avoid repeating our past.” Music, theatre and an exhibition by young photographers illustrating the daily life of Sarajevo’s people were all part of the event, which had the backing of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbia. The mission of the annual event, in the organizers’ own words, is “to promote communication and reconciliation between Bosnian and Serbian youth, providing a meeting place for them to face the past and the future together and helping to establish stronger links between citizens of the two cities.”

In northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) for nearly two decades abducted tens of thousands of children and forced countless numbers of them to commit crimes against their own families and communities, strong local non-governmental organizations backed by international agencies and government aid programmes are at the forefront of recovery efforts. A number of them are focused on young people.

"Youth are the backbone of the post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding process in northern Uganda, and they cannot be ignored."

“Youth are the backbone of the post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding process in northern Uganda, and they cannot be ignored in any post-conflict reconstruction programmes,” says a publication from the Youth Leadership Project of the Gulu District NGO Forum. Gulu is northern Uganda’s largest town and the centre of the economy in a region inhabited by the Acholi ethnic group. The larger Gulu district and some neighbouring areas were the centre of the atrocities carried out by the LRA, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, an Acholi who turned on his own people and caused horrendous suffering with acts of extreme brutality.

The Gulu Forum network is open to any non-governmental or civil society organization that adheres to the principles of human-rights-based development. In youth work, the Gulu Forum and groups have focused on conflict resolution, including studying traditional justice mechanisms, and on the training of young people to build their capacities for development work across economic sectors. At the same time, it has encouraged academic study through the Youth Leadership Project, giving some scholarship aid to students in the northern Uganda region.

One of the leading groups in the Gulu network is the Straight Talk Foundation, a national organization based in Kampala, with branches in Gulu and a few other towns. In Gulu, it runs the Gulu Youth Centre, a multi-purpose haven for young people. With support from UNFPA and USAID through the Civil Society Fund and Save the Children in Uganda, the Gulu Youth Centre has become a major provider of sexual and reproductive health care for young people in northern Uganda. It provides HIV testing and counselling, treats sexually transmitted infections, gives family planning advice and distributes supplies, including emergency contraception. It aligns active programmes to youthful interests to spotlight and promote a reduction of gender-based violence and negative cultural practices. Break dancing with positive life messages provides entertainment.

In its reproductive health work, the Gulu Youth Centre has been faced with disquieting findings about the lives of girls and young women. Among older teens, the rate of HIV infections is much higher in the female population than among boys and young men. The centre sees several reasons for this: early marriage of girls to much older men who had previous sexual partners, forced marriages to men with several wives and young girls using sex for money to pay for basic needs like food and schooling. Violence against women has also been a concern in northern Uganda, where HIV/AIDS prevalence, at about 8.3 per cent, is considerably higher than the 6.4 per cent national average: In itself this is a very high rate by international standards. Faith Lubanga, Manager of the Gulu Youth Centre, said that no topic is taboo in discussion groups, where young people often ask for information on topics such as sexually transmitted infections or alcoholism, problems among men that worsened with conflict. “We are dispelling myths, like you can wash away HIV with Coke,” she said.

[22] Youth’s heightened vulnerability to HIV in conflicts and emergencies

Conflict-affected populations, particularly young people, are at a high risk of HIV exposure and infection due to the insecurity and resulting heightened vulnerabilities that occur during conflict. The disruption of sexual and reproductive health services and lack of access to HIV prevention information and services can increase a young person’s vulnerability to HIV.

In emergencies, family and community structures that normally influence behaviour are weakened, and the resulting poverty, social instability and powerlessness can lead youth to exchange sex for food, protection or other services. The use of sex as a survival strategy during emergencies, especially among women and girls, raises vulnerability to HIV.

Recent conflicts have led to the mobilization of young boys and girls in fighting forces, placing them at risk of HIV infection resulting from sexual violence by older officers, explicit orders from commanders to rape or peer pressure that promotes risky sexual behaviour. A growing body of evidence exists on the trajectory of HIV and AIDS among uniformed officials and demobilized personnel; they are more likely to spread the infection because they are highly mobile, mostly young and equipped with the means to purchase sex or use power and weapons to exploit or abuse others. However, with the proper engagement and training, young people associated with fighting forces or armed groups have the potential to become “change agents” in assisting their communities with HIV prevention activities, thereby becoming part of the solution rather than a potential part of the problem.

At least 15 million young people are impacted by HIV and AIDS in conflicts and related emergencies around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest concentration of global emergencies, 57 per cent of adults with HIV are women. Young women 15 to 24 are more than three times as likely to be infected as young men.

Source: Youth Zones, by Governess Films in association with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission

The Gulu Youth Centre has about 1,350 visitors a week, Lubanga said. Its youth-friendly environment is evident in its discreet consultation rooms and clinical facilities. Sarah Lanyero, the clinical officer at the six-year-old centre, said that its counselling on family planning began in 2006, and is available for young people from ages 15 to 24. In years past, the clinic had seen cases of unsafe abortions, many of them self-induced with local herbal concoctions or drugs. Now these cases are rarer, as young people learn about responsible sex, she said. Lanyero also counters myths surrounding sexual and reproductive health and family planning, such as that contraception will cause abnormal future babies, or that without menstrual periods (the side effect of injectables) blood collects inside the body, requiring surgery.

The Gulu Youth Centre reaches out to young men and women. As a strategy to get more men involved in discussions, Lanyero said that the centre does not advertise public programmes as family planning events, but as broader information sessions on family economies and health that lead to thinking about contraception. “Men are beginning to come in to ask about family planning for their wives,” she said. At a table on the veranda of the Gulu Youth Centre are copies of the Straight Talk Foundation’s newspapers designed to appeal to and inform boys and girls. Straight Talk is a newspaper for older adolescents and Youngtalk is targeted to upper-primary grades. Radio shows, some aimed at parents, are broadcast in more than a dozen languages nationally, on 39 FM stations across Uganda. With a panoply of media attuned to youth, the foundation’s messages get wide circulation.

A pronounced phenomenon in Uganda, also present to varying degrees in other post-conflict areas, is the growing presence and authority of young local professionals, many of them women, in post-conflict programmes of all kinds. At the Gulu office of War Child Canada, a non-profit organization based in Toronto, three of these young Ugandan women gathered to talk about the legal protection service they run for women and children. “Legal protection and intervention for women and children are one of the last rights addressed after food, water, housing, health and psychosocial counselling,” said Vanina Trojan, a Canadian who is legal protection coordinator in Gulu, as she introduced her three young Ugandan staff. “We want to reestablish the legal rights framework, and this is definitely not a priority in areas of conflict.”

Annette Okwera, the head of paralegals for the Gulu district, spoke about some of the cases affecting children that her office has encountered. Before the war, “our culture was close,” she said. “The war disrupted that. Now people returning to their homes are left alone without the support of their clan.” She said that sexual abuse of children is all too frequent, and there are also many cases of child neglect. But getting people to take cases to the police or a court can be frustrating in families more accustomed to traditional clan justice systems run by elders—systems that are only slowly beginning to reemerge—or under social pressure not to make allegations public.

In Haiti, where armed gangs of young men had challenged United Nations peacekeepers long before the 2010 earthquake, numerous organizations have been working to direct youth into constructive community involvement. These efforts, though often still mostly small, have been accelerated, as much as slim funds can support, since the earthquake. UNFPA, which had lost its headquarters in the disaster and was working from rudimentary temporary quarters, stepped in soon after the earthquake to train young people and put them to work in camps for the displaced. Young people, between 15 and 24, represent 22.7 per cent of Haiti’s population, and could be a powerful force in Haiti’s reconstruction. Like the United Nations Development Programme and other agencies, UNFPA supported cash-for-work initiatives, recruiting young people to assemble “dignity kits”—a package of hygiene essentials such as soap, toothbrushes, underwear, supplies for menstruating women or other things especially relevant to any given situation—for distribution among the displaced population.

Young people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, play games and learn new skills at Camp de l’Avenir, a day-camp for displaced youth.
©UNFPA/Trygve Olfarnes

Youth volunteers supported by UNFPA, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization, with backup from United Nations Police, also helped distribute supplementary food to children, pregnant women and new mothers. In another project, young people joined professional researchers to survey the number and needs of people displaced by the earthquake. The researchers found that women named a lack of privacy and separate latrines as important to their ability to avoid rape and other gender-base crimes.

The Haitian Government’s Ministry of Youth and Sport was able to set up day camps for about 1,000 displaced children ages 11 to 16 outside the city of Port-au-Prince, where sports and creative activities could be offered in a countryside setting. Psychologists and therapists were in attendance to hold workshop discussions on a range of topics, including sexual and reproductive health. The grand plan for the future is to have integrated centres for youth in each region of the country, where the workshop concept can continue. The ministry also hopes to create links through television and radio to allow young people to connect and talk with each other. 

One of the tragic legacies of decades of dictatorship and tumultuous politics has been the loss of a sense of community, said Witchner Orméus, Director of Youth and Integration at Haiti’s Ministry of Youth and Sport. He said that the ministry was thinking about how to bring back more voluntary work and community action, given the needs of society after the devastation of the earthquake and the limited abilities of the government to supply all that is necessary to rebuild lives and neighborhoods, even with generous outside assistance.

“When we talk about reconstruction, it has to include social reconstruction,” Orméus said. He added that in the needs assessment fund created in the spring of 2010, spending on youth was factored in for the first time, and a new law on associations was in the planning stages. Haitian governments have not had an easy relationship with voluntary organizations, many of which operate in legal limbo. But there is ample evidence of the potential for greater youth involvement in recovery, which will take years if not decades.

"When we talk about reconstruction, it has to include social reconstruction."

There are numerous youth organizations with very different affiliations—secular and religious—around Port-au-Prince and other affected cities and towns. They were able to help in limited ways because of very limited budgets after the earthquake, when many organizations lost offices and lives. At least 1.2 million people were made homeless by the earthquake, and many of them had no other option but to find small space in any one of numerous camps.

The work of young volunteers, apparently not coordinated in any formal way by the government, may not have always been noticeable by international media, given the scale of the devastation and the size of camps for displaced people, but both secular and religious organizations were represented. One such group, Adventist Youth, part of whose training in normal times included setting up tents, starting cooking fires and preparing food in holes dug in the ground when there are no utensils, were present in most of the camps, said Jude Bien-Aime, a Seventh Day Adventist leader in Port-au-Prince. His church also provided food—a busy soup kitchen was in operation outside his office, welcoming people from the street. The church also continues to do psychosocial counselling.

Members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, often acting on their own initiatives, tried to help victims in the hours and days after the disaster, said Nicolas Clervil and Gerard-Marie Tardieu, the commissioner and assistant commissioner, respectively, of the scouting movement in Haiti. They are proud of a teenage girl guide who singlehandedly won attention for trying to organize help in Léogane, a city near the epicenter of the earthquake. Their headquarters in Port-au-Prince had been lost in the earthquake, and they were now living and working in tents outside the city.

A youth group that has been especially active in post-earthquake relief is Kiro, led by a priest, Alexandre Kakolo, with support from Haiti’s dominant Roman Catholic Church. Kiro—its name is taken from the name Jesus in Greek letters—was quick to establish programmes in camps for people displaced by the earthquake, sometimes in cooperation with government agencies. Government trucks, for example, hauled away rubbish collected in cleanups by volunteers working to reduce health hazards in the crowded and under-serviced camps. Kiro members also set up activities for camp children. “We want to help people relax, make them feel good, talk to them,” Kakolo said. The organization aided in finding drinkable water for camp residents, who often had no clean water to drink in very hot weather.

Kiro took on another difficult task: talking to boys about respecting women in emergency camps, where they have been reported being molested in communal showers and in toilets, which offer little privacy. Again and again, camp residents tell of the abuses girls and women suffer in the close quarters of camps, where the presence of police officers is low, when any are present at all.

Leaders of some youth groups, reflecting old ideas about blame for gender-based violence, suggested that if girls wore less skimpy clothes they might be spared rape. One group leader said he advised girls to wear trousers or “two pairs of pants” to bed.  The perception that rape is a girl’s fault persists in many countries.

In Liberia, a national survey in 2008 found that the largest number of rape victims were girls and young women from 10 to 19 years old. Yet 83 per cent of people surveyed—and 84 per cent of youth—believed that women contribute to rape by wearing revealing clothes. Some students tried to reason that rape could be “accidental”—something that just happened on the spur of the moment because of provocation. The report, “Research on Prevalence and Attitudes to Rape in Liberia,” was commissioned by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development to find explanations for the persistent problem of rape in a country emerging from a civil war.

[23] The psychological impact of conflict on young people

Emergencies create fissures in community and family networks, and violence experienced during emergencies can increase the risk of psychological trauma within communities and nations. Emergencies and conflicts may amplify existing psychological problems and result in new ones, including anxiety, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In humanitarian emergencies, young people, particularly adolescents, may experience highly stressful and traumatic events, such as displacement, separation from families, physical and sexual violence or forced recruitment into armed groups.

Although not every person will develop psychological problems in a crisis, adolescents are at increased risk of experiencing social or psychological issues. Adolescence is a difficult period of development and transition, and navigating the social, behavioural, cognitive and physical changes under “normal” circumstances, let alone during a crisis, can be extremely challenging. Addressing mental health and psychosocial issues can help adolescents develop resilience, enable them to make better decisions and engage in healthier behaviour. It is therefore important to integrate mental health and psychosocial support into emergency response mechanisms.

Nearly one in three survivors of gender-based violence develops mental health problems. Studies of young people exposed to extreme violence have shown a high prevalence of emotional distress among Cambodian refugee adolescents and Palestinian children. A longitudinal study of child soldiers in Mozambique reveals that 100 per cent of former child soldiers interviewed exhibited psychological distress symptoms, and 16 years later, 70 per cent of them still had recurrent thoughts or memories of traumatic events.

Source: Youth Zones, by Governess Films in association with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission

Worldwide, United Nations agencies, funds and programmes have developed and/or expanded programmes for young people, with an emphasis on those living in poverty and post-conflict societies. At UNFPA and in other agencies there is a recognition that the young are best approached through their own means of expression. “As young people share ideas, values, music and symbols through mass media and electronic technology, a global youth culture has emerged,” according to UNFPA. “Many young people are organizing themselves and networking through formal and informal channels.”

Young people often represent a disproportionate number of those affected by crises, UNFPA says. “Programming for the diversity of young people can yield better results in helping young people grasp opportunities and overcome challenges with positive results.” The hurdles are high. “More than half of young people live in poverty, on less than $2 per day,” according to UNFPA. “Often they lack access to the technology and information. Many also face social inequality, poor schools, gender discrimination, unemployment and inadequate health systems. They deserve better. And investing in them is an investment in the future leaders of families, communities and nations.”

In Kenya, UNICEF supported a government project to involve young people in thinking about the country’s political future following a violent upheaval after disputed national elections in 2008. At the launch this year of Kenya’s version of a National Youth Situation Analysis Report, more than 1,000 young people gathered in Nairobi and celebrated with singing, drama and dance. Many young Kenyans were affected by the 2008 violence, during which at least 1,000 people are thought to have died in inter-ethnic violence and many more were driven from their homes. Education was interrupted when some schools were burned down.

Education is an essential need and a main pillar for societies rebuilding after conflict. It may be the key investment for long-term security. To build a lasting peace once the dust settles after conflict, women and men and boys and girls need, through appropriate learning and teaching processes, to develop what UNESCO calls life skills—“to learn to be and to be together.” Education is also critical as it is investment into developing a future generation that is capable of problem-solving, has appropriate social and occupational competencies and has the breadth and depth of knowledge to build a dynamic and innovative society.

UNESCO’s latest figures, published in 2010, show that 72 million children were not getting a primary school education as of 2007. By 2015 that number was expected to be 56 million—better but still missing by a substantial margin the Millennium Development Goal of primary education for all. At the secondary education level, estimates of the number of young people worldwide who are not in school range from 71 million to 266 million, depending on the parameters of the age group classified as “adolescent.”

[24] War, natural disasters devastate already-fragile educational systems

Armed conflict and natural disasters disrupt and devastate educational systems. Schools are damaged or destroyed, teachers are displaced and young people’s education is interrupted, often for years. Many displaced young people spend their entire childhood and adolescence in refugee camps or urban shanty towns. As a result, many are not in school; some may never have been to school. In addition to lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, these young people miss out on the vital psychosocial protection and support that schools can provide. As they grow older, young people in conflict and displacement settings are much less likely to be in school. Young women are least likely of all to be in school due to cultural, economic and physical barriers to their education.

Formal and non-formal education provides young people with a sense of normalcy and hope for the future, promotes well-being and cognitive development and reduces the risk that they will engage in dangerous activities. Education is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. Upholding this right is especially challenging in conflicts, natural disasters or when people are displaced.

Only 20 per cent of secondary school age refugees are enrolled in secondary school, and in 2007, 30 per cent of refugees enrolled in secondary school were girls.

The education of young people in emergencies has not received adequate attention from the international community and millions of young people continue to lack secondary school options. Non-formal education, in particular, is often a low priority of donors, policy makers and practitioners.

Source: Youth Zones, by Governess Films in association with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission

The tendency of girls to disappear from classrooms is an issue that is raised almost universally in developing countries, especially in post-conflict areas where established communities have been disrupted and are trying to regroup in unstable situations. In Timor-Leste, Filomena Belo, a former fighter for independence from Indonesia who is now head of the office of planning, monitoring and evaluation in the office of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality, says that much more attention has to be paid to the recruitment of teachers in order to provide gender-sensitive, friendly environments for girls in secondary and tertiary education. She said that dropout rates are high in Timor-Leste because of early marriage, teen-age pregnancy and the fear of abuse in the classroom or school grounds, or on the way to and from school.

Children carry water for their mothers in a market outside of Monrovia, Liberia. The market, built with UNFPA support, is a place where women and their children are safe from harassment and abuse.
©VII Photo/Marcus Bleasdale

In Liberia and Uganda, village women moving into positions of local authority also said that school environments for girls are woefully lacking, starting in primary school but more crucially at secondary level, where girls are lost in large numbers. Girls don’t go to school, particularly after reaching puberty, for reasons as simple as the lack of private toilets where they will not be molested. In a community called Soul Clinic, near Monrovia, Liberia, Lucy Page, the founder and Executive Director of the Community Empowerment Program, was able to build a school with United Nations help for the children of local market women. Next to the classrooms, she proudly pointed out, were two banks of separate female and male toilets with sturdy concrete walls, connected to a modern septic system and running water. Signs on the walls warned against any sexually explicit language or abuse. Looking around the market at Soul Clinic, with its clean water pump, latrines and showers, the new school and a small mill for making flour near the women’s food stalls, Page says with satisfaction: “We have lifted them up. Their dignity has been restored.”

In post-disaster or post-conflict countries, the value of higher education may easily be overlooked when the immediate challenges are hunger and homelessness. But academic leaders are speaking out for more recognition of the role of academia in the restoration of a society and in preparing youth to take charge of national development in the future. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saša Madacki, Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Sarajevo, said that there are huge gaps in Bosnians’ knowledge about their own society because there has been little research done outside population centres, and that has fostered a sense of denial. He said, “There were a lot of voices saying that before the war, there was no domestic violence, there was no mistreatment of women, there was no mistreatment of children. But actually what was happening on the scene is that there was no reporting on these things.”

He wants to see the university produce more researchers and scholars of society, now that changing attitudes allow more open discussion of issues such as the situation of women in the country’s patriarchal culture, particularly in the countryside. “The problem is, we still have no facts from the rural areas, the remote villages,” he said. “We are lacking anthropological research. You cannot ignore this social background in your own house.”

Madacki is bitterly critical of the extent to which much of the research in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina is done not by students and scholars from Bosnian universities but by outsiders with no stake in the country’s future. In Madacki’s view, the field of social studies is wide open and in need of a new generation of local scholars to put Bosnia’s tragic past into a Bosnian or Balkan historical context.

In Liberia, Emmet Dennis, who became President of the University of Liberia last year, said that universities should be active training grounds, turning out well educated thinkers to work on filling gaps in a country’s reconstruction and development across a wide range of fields from medicine and law to agriculture and business. His university, once the pride of Monrovia, the Liberian capital, had been badly battered by civil war and the flight of its best professors, leaving a teaching staff with lower academic credentials too easily tempted by corruption in very hard economic times for both professors and students, Dennis said. He described his bold plans for pulling the institution out of stagnation and making it youth-friendly, in partnership with leading institutions around the world. “The university should be the leader of our society,” he said.

[25] The UNFPA vision for youth

UNFPA promotes and protects the rights of young people. It envisions a world in which girls and boys have optimal opportunities to develop their full potential, to freely express themselves and have their views respected, and to live free of poverty, discrimination and violence.

To achieve this, UNFPA works across sectors and with many partners to:

  • Empower adolescents and youth with skills to achieve their dreams, think critically, and express themselves freely.
  • Promote health, including by giving them access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, commodities and services.
  • Connect young people to livelihood and employment programmes.
  • Uphold the rights of young people, especially girls and marginalized groups, to grow up healthy and safe to receive a fair share of social investments.
  • Encourage young people’s leadership and participation in decisions that affect them, including the development plans of their societies.

UNFPA’s holistic, multi-sectoral, collaborative approach reflects a vision that sees the lives of young people in totality rather than fragments. At the policy level, the Fund frames adolescent and youth issues within the larger development context of poverty reduction. At the programme level, it advocates for an essential package of social protection interventions for youth that includes education, sexual and reproductive health services and support for establishing livelihoods. At both levels, the Fund encourages intergenerational alliances that pair the energy, perspectives and motivation of young people with the experience and know-how of adult coaches and facilitators.

Adolescence is a period of many critical transitions: physical, psychological, economic and social. As childhood is left behind, pressures to forge a unique identity and to become responsible adults intensify. These transitions are mixed with challenges and choices, which are strongly influenced by gender expectations of societies and families. Successfully navigating through these transitions depends, in part, on the support young people receive from families, communities and society at large.

[26] In crisis and recovery, chiefs and elders find roles

One of the most remarkable recent developments in parts of Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, among other places, is the growing reemergence and involvement of traditional leaders and elders in rural communities recovering from catastrophe, and their willingness to include the needs and rights of women. Since most of the traditional leaders in many countries are male, this trend would seem to owe its momentum to rising social awareness among men as well as the enhanced empowerment of women who surmounted the challenges of conflict and displacement and returned to their homes with a new feeling of strength, altering gender roles in many families.

In Timor-Leste, for example, women are being elected to positions as village leaders, known as chefes de suco. In Fiji in May 2010, a group of 45 men, including turaga-ni-koros—traditional village heads—took part in a training programme on women’s rights and gender-based violence. Religious leaders as well as locally elected officials and security officers also joined the discussions, led by Shamina Ali, Executive Director of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. The centre, which works to educate communities on gender violence, later conducted training and discussion sessions for young men in Tonga.

When a group of Acholi clan chiefs and elders from northern Uganda met near Gulu to talk about their cultural institutions for this report, a woman was also at the table. The high rates of maternal deaths and HIV infections in Uganda have contributed in great measure to attracting the attention of traditional leaders who may be seeing their families and communities decimated. There is an opening through these issues to the larger question of gender relationships. There is also something new in the air about gender, and bold women’s organizations and individual advocates for women’s health and rights are beginning to be heard more widely. A barely nascent but apparently real willingness for men and women to work together on issues of gender roles and responsibilities has begun to grow. Janet Jackson, UNFPA’s representative in Uganda, has watched this develop and aided the effort. “A lot of the work that we have done in the north has allowed women to mobilize,” she said. “They are saying, enough is enough.”

In the town of Lira, east of Gulu, home of the Lango people, Alfred Adeke, a practical-minded former accountant in the cotton trade and a Lango clan leader, now has the title of finance minister of the Lango Cultural Foundation. Over lunch with colleagues in Lira on projects to help victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, Adeke described how the strong customary role of clan chiefs who once presided over clusters of families had been broken in 1966, four years after Ugandan independence.

The Lango cultural leaders in the Lira area, and other people of northern Uganda see in their historical, pre-colonial institutions, restored in a new constitution in the 1990s, a system of justice and reconciliation that could complement contemporary government courts, where every case becomes a win-lose situation. In the courts, the poor stand a low chance of winning because they have neither the money nor the experience and knowledge to use the law to their advantage. In the clan-negotiated system the outcome does not have to be so harsh; reconciliation is often the major goal.

On the outskirts of Gulu, the commercial capital of northern Uganda, the Acholi leadership has formalized and published a customary law code and, more recently, a paper on “Acholi Principles on Gender Relations.” The preamble to the latter document is a good reflection of a new era and the response to changing attitudes and outside influences. It refers to the “evolving and dynamic nature of culture and its need to conform to established constitutional standards and international human rights instruments for it to remain relevant.”

Because so many Acholi youth, boys and girls, were abducted and forced into the Lord’s Resistance Army and those who have returned are often severely traumatized or addicted to life with a gun, elders say that customary rituals help in bringing peace to post-conflict villages and towns. “Children are tormented, possessed by evil spirits because of all the deeds they did,” said Nepthali Ococ, deputy chairman of the Acholi Elders. “Young girls forced into sexual slavery face a lot of stigma now. Families are embarrassed. Some girls have come back with children to very poor families. We should have a way of handling the problem of children who committed crimes against their will.” To Acholi communities, he said, “Anyone who has been in the bush has committed some crime.”

At Empowering Hands, a small and struggling storefront non-governmental organization in Gulu, young men who were soldiers and women who have returned from sex slavery in the bush are helping others with similar experiences through Acholi cleansing ceremonies. In trauma cases, such ceremonies are used along with counselling and a lot of reassuring conversation. Many of the young people treated at Empowering Hands would be unlikely to find professional psychosocial services, and in any case could not afford to pay for them. Sharing experiences helps everyone. “There has been stigmatization, victimization for all of us,” a young women working in the centre said. One of her colleagues described being beaten by rebel troops, forced to carry heavy loads and sexually abused. She said she gave birth when she was 14 years old, in captivity. When she came home, her parents were gone. She is caring for her own child and four siblings on very little income. That she can now share problems with others like her has brought her some happiness and peace, she said. Her biggest regret is that she cannot afford to go back to school.

In Kampala, Primo Madra, a physician and national programme officer for emergencies at UNFPA, is concerned that social services are still not adequate in the north and that more effort needs to be put into peacebuilding and reconciliation by district authorities and the national government.

The chief administrative officer for Gulu acknowledged in an interview that public social services are overwhelmed. Over 90 per cent of several hundred thousand displaced people had returned from camps by 2010. “Going back means building a home, starting to produce food, finding water,” he said. Property disputes are holding up development, orphans still need homes and then 10 per cent of displaced people still in the camps are especially vulnerable: the elderly without resources of their own and remnants of broken families with no land to which to return. The traditional cultural institutions want to help, but these are largely challenges beyond their capacity and resources.

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