Four tips from peacebuilders on working with young people to transform violent extremism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Terrorist organisations often offer young people recognition and a purpose they cannot find in society. [Valentina Calà/Flickr]

If violent extremist groups recognise the power and potential of young people, why don’t those combatting them? Rachel Walsh Taza, Lakshitha Saji Prelis and Fien De Baere from the organisation Search for Common Ground lay out four tips to help young people avoid violence.

Rachel Walsh Taza is children and youth programme coordinator at Search for Common Ground.

Violent extremist groups not only acknowledge (and exploit) the grievances of young people, they provide them with the tools and means to have devastating impact and make international headlines.

Those of us working for social and economic progress and development, on the other hand, too often fail to provide young people the same power and partnership to confront the injustices and deprivations they witness every day. The largest generation in history (in 2015, one in every six people worldwide were between the ages of 15 and 24) remains underrepresented in discourse and decision-making on issues that affect their lives (less than 2 percent of parliamentarians worldwide are under the age of 30) – including in efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism.

Despite the rhetoric (particularly around young men and violence), the simple reality is that the majority of young people- male and female- choose not to participate in violence, and thousands of young activists are working to prevent violent extremism and build peace in their communities (like this young man in Cameroon who works with street children, former gang members, and youth in detention centres on positive alternatives to violence). As we celebrate International Youth Day on Saturday (12 August), it’s time to focus on partnering with this demographic dividend to better address the drivers of violent extremism.

Search for Common Ground works with more than a million young people a year to promote alternative, nonviolent pathways for addressing grievances. Building on this experience and more than 35 years of work to transform conflict in communities around the world, we’ve put together four tips on how to work with young people to turn the tide against violent extremism.

Embrace youth as critical, trustworthy partners and collaborators for constructive change

Young people have a unique and critical perspective to offer on addressing violent extremism, based on their understanding of what drives recruitment at the community level and their proximity to local realities, grievances, and messaging. This young woman in Nigeria started her own initiative to help women and children fleeing Boko Haram and reintegrate those rescued from the group into society. Hers is just one example of the youth leading life-saving humanitarian work for communities affected by conflict, according to a recent report.

As partners, young people should be actively engaged in both policy and programming, from analysis and design, to implementation and monitoring, and developing recommendations for the future based on lessons learned. Such engagement should extend beyond elite youth based in the capitals, to diverse segments of young people in the communities most affected by violent extremism.

Recognise young people’s need for respect, dignity, and agency

Violent groups often offer young people a sense of purpose, the comfort of a shared sense of identity, and a path to heroism. International Alert’s research about young people’s involvement in violent extremism in Syria suggests that a sense of self-realisation, the relationships of respect and dignity and the potential to exercise agency are equally important for young people’s resilience as the needs for material well-being.

Experiences of injustice are key motivating factors for youth who participate in political violence. Accordingly, “quick fixes” or strategies that aim to pacify young people, such as addressing violent extremism through vocational training or promoting “moderation”, can actually further frustrate or stigmatise them. Young people have legitimate social and political aspirations, historically at the forefront of movements to challenge injustice and abuse of power. When pursued through constructive and nonviolent action, these aspirations can create positive and visionary change for their communities.

Facilitate collaborative relationships between youth and security actors

Systemic mistrust is one of the greatest barriers to involving young people in policy and programming. “Trust is a key challenge as we are perceived as children who are not able to make things evolve and change. But without young people working on peace and security, the decision makers will not understand our needs,” wrote one youth activist in Paris, France.

Creating informal and formal channels for communication and coordination between youth and security actors is crucial. One example of constructive collaboration can be found in Bangladesh, where youth-led MOVE foundation worked with authorities on reviewing education material and on community policing.

This can be challenging when governments practice a closed-door approach in security matters and youth are wary of efforts for engagement (particularly when there’s a history of human rights abuses and domestic spying). Trust-building may need to start gradually, through informal or discreet channels if necessary. Communication channels can then be formalised, through local legislation and consultative bodies, and community and state-level offices and ministries.  UN Security Council Resolution 2250 offers a framework for increasing young people’s participation in peace and security efforts and decision-making.

Amplify credible, constructive narratives (and be comfortable with a diversity of viewpoints)

Amplifying young voices who are tackling grievances or speaking to similar needs through nonviolent means offers other young people credible alternatives to violence. Young people in the Netherlands recognized this opportunity and created the online platform, “Dare to be Grey,” which challenges polarisation and creates “grey” space for a diversity of views and dialogue online.

As a start, work alongside youth to map channels of communication and influence within their communities to understand the reach and resonance of violent narratives and perspectives and amplify constructive alternatives. The aim is not to demonise young people who have chosen violent extremism or to have all young people speak with one unified voice. On the contrary, it is important to open the door for youth to disengage from violent movements and to give visibility to a diverse range of ideological viewpoints. This engages young people across the ideological spectrum and highlights that both hardline and moderate individuals can benefit from engaging each other peacefully. Youth in Indonesia, with support from Search for Common Ground, created their own radio stations to promote tolerance and dialogue inside religious boarding schools and engage the “silent majority” of moderate religious voices.

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