The Role of Youth in Reconciliation

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The Role of Youth in Reconciliation

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • How do youth have the credibility, the resources and the social capital to positively influence their society?
  • How are conflicts transformed by grassroots youth movements worldwide?
  • What are the obstacles faced by youth in grassroots youth movements?
  • In conflict zones across the world, how can youth set the standards for new ways to engage in dialogue, non-violence and development?
  • Share stories of success.
The Role of Youth in Post-Conflict Reconciliation

The remakrs below are from my study of the gendered roles that youth are playing in transitional justice and reconciliation processes in Uganda and South Sudan. (Contact me if you'd like a PDF copy of the article). 

Having witnessed, suffered, and, in some cases, committed crimes of war, young people “have a key role in addressing those crimes and in reconciliation and peace-building processes in their communities”1. The participation of young people in post-conflict accountability, truth-seeking and long-term reconciliation is, however, not without difficulties: “the most significant challenge that such processes present is the extent to which they are consistent with international norms and standards for children’s rights”2. The protection and participation of female children and young women warrant additional attention, as they have often been marginalized. 

1. Machel, Graça. 2010. “Foreword.” In Children and Transitional Justice: Truth-Telling, Accountability and Reconciliation, edited by Sharanjeet Parmar, Mindy Jane Roseman, Saudamini Siegrist, and eo Sowa, pp. ix-xii. Innocenti Research Centre, Florence: UNICEF, and Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School.

2. Smith, Alan. 2010. “Children, Education and Reconciliation.” UNICEF. Innocenti Working Paper, IWP 2010-10. 



Social capital and influence

Resources, social capital and influence are definitely increasing for youth, in a number of initiatives in reconciliation. Spaces have been made for youth in discussions for reconciliation, but never enough spaces. It is encouraging  to see how youth have created space, where it may or not have been provided for them, before. Often advocacy that begins as grassroots levels to build a school in one community, to access sources of clean drinking water, for better language resources and advocates against discrimination or rights violations create these youth movements across a number of communities. Each individual  innovation and creative approach reaches a wider audience and inevitably, more communities. We see here, a great deal of social capital in innovations to programs that simply are not working for youth. In Canada we work with 94 Calls to Action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is often youth that take to re-drafting the Calls or creating their own Calls to Action, that carry forward the messages of reconciliation but re-written to focus on youth objectives. Essentially, we see youth carving out spaces for influence, if they don't see enough of it. That act creates enormous credibility, I think.

Social Capital & - Still Limited, but Strengthening - Influence

I agree with you, Tricia. We are indeed witnessing a period of increased attention being directed to the important roles that youth can and do play in a number of spheres of social action. Not all of this attention is positive, though. 

Scholarship, policy and operational interventions implemented in societies emerging from violent conflict have often approached youth in terms of their potential for renewed violence. Of primary concern in these initiatives is the link between young people’s socio-economic and political exclusion and various forms of disruptive, antisocial behavior—e.g. gang membership, failed demobilization, crime, radicalization.

The common conflation of social categories such as ‘‘youth,’’ ‘‘refugee’’, ‘‘combatant’’, or even “terrorist”, depending on the context, often guide the formulation of conflict and post-conflict policy and the implementation of reconciliation interventions, with little consideration of the fluid identity self-perceptions of young people themselves. This is clearly problematic but, as Tricia notes, it appears to be slowly changing. Increasing attention to issues of agency and context is leading to a broadening of interest in the lives of young people across a wider range of global contexts including conflict-related displacement and reintegration, which have important implications for research, as well as policy and practice, on peacebuilding and reconciliation.

how best to support engagement

Tricia it's great to hear that youth are actively taking on the TRC's calls to action. Over the course of the TRC's work I had the privildege of working with youth around Vancouver, Edmonton, and Halifax. In each context (through a partnership between the TRC and ICTJ) they producded very moving responses to the work of the TRC, mostly in the form of videos. In some cases it was harder to sustain the engagement of non-Indigenous youth who are less directly impacted by the legacy of the IRS. In your work, which groups are you engaging with and through what structures? I think the example of Canada can be an inspiration to many (and already has been), so it would be interesting to hear more about how you've gone about facilitating and supporting youth engagement and ownership of the follow up to the TRC process? Has your greatest success been through schools or informal networks?

Hi Virginie!

Hi Virginie!

I think these are such an important questions and likely ones that is relevant beyond the Canadian case. 

It seems to me that policy and initiatives are often focused particularly towards youth who have been most directly affected by conflict or human rights violations and less effort or thought is given to engaging (and keeping engaged) young people who are part of conflict-affected societies and therefore affected by and part of the causes of those conflicts. The idea that what we might broadly describe as peace education efforts are only relevant (or even most relevant) for 'victims' (even if inter-generationally) is counter-productive, I think.

Not just part of the probem(s)

Here in Geneva, many are talking about how mass unemployment of youth is leading to a whole host of problems and that youth must be engaged in seeking (or co-creating) the solutions.  However, it will take some time for a dialogue between generations to get to the point where different generations can see each others different but yet still equals as each generation has unique gift to bring to the table that the other does not.  Until generations, especially the older ones, realize that they can both teach and learn, and the younger ones do likewise, then problems in all sectors, including in the fields of reconciliation will not make significant improvements.


Youth, Reconciliation, Gender and Generation

I would say that we are witnessing what Mamadou Diouf described as the ‘‘dramatic irruption of young people in both the domestic and public spheres,’’ situating youth at the very heart of their societies socio-economic and political life.

As noted, constructions of youngsters in crisis-affected societies have tended to adopt a negative outlook. These views are, however, neither static nor homogeneous across age, gender and other variables. Younger children are more likely to be categorized as victims, while adolescents and youth (especially males) may be perceived as a potential force for social disruption and upheaval.

Gender stereotyping is indeed also common, with female youth identified as “troubled” and males seen as “troublesome”.

International attention (e.g. at the UN, bilateral, and INGO level) has progressively shifted from an exclusive concern with the negative impacts of violent conflict and dislocation to a positive awareness of the creative roles that young people can play as agentive participants in the process of post-conflict reconstruction, peacebuilding and reconciliation, not just passive recipients of others’ provisions. Positive steps in this direction have indeed been taken.

I very much agree with Rainer's comment about inter-generational relations -- an issue that has not received sufficient attention.

More specifically in the context of post-conflict reconciliation, empirical studies suggest that chiefs and other local leaders -- typically members of the older generations -- spouse views on traditional justice that may be less acceptable to youngsters. The former often favor the reestablishment of traditional mechanisms over national or international formal structures in which they have no role. Members of the younger generations, especially those who grew up in exile -- i.e., refugee camps managed by international aid organizations -- and were exposed to alternative understandings of justice and reconciliation, do not always share their elders’ sentiments. Adolescent girls and women also lament the loss of the greater opportunities available to them in exile, in contrast to what they perceive as the more constraining traditional social mores of conservative elders.


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Further thoughts on the link between education & reconciliation

Thanks, Virginie, for sharing these resources. I look forward to reading them as soon as this academic term is over – just one more week for me at Georgetown!!

I think that there are plenty of examples evidencing the positive relationship between education and peacebuilding and/or reconciliation. Some of the connections are obvious: 

  • Improved education services and curricular content can contribute to rectifying long-standing group inequalities and delegitimizing violence as a tool of conflict resolution.
  • Upgraded educational provision and teaching can also promote the long-term peaceful management of relationships between groups in society, thereby reducing the risks of conflict erupting again in the future.
  • Educational provision is a key peace dividend and can be an important incentive to disarm.
  • Improved educational provision can send a clearly discernible signal from the government that the state is committed to the well-being of its citizens.  The list goes on . . .

We must nevertheless remember that conflict sometimes arises over legitimate grievances that may or may not have been adequately addressed once hostilities have ceased.  Education will not by itself change structural conditions. In turn, reconciliation is not likely to take place in situations of “negative peace”.  

My work in countries such as South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad has led me to conclude that education can play a very significant role in processes such as peacebuilding, transitional justice and reconciliation, but must be part of a broader set of context-specific post-conflict reconstruction initiatives.