Globally, one in four young people live in places affected by armed conflict or organised violence. But youth aren’t just the victims of violence – they have the power to act for peace and the vision and ideas to achieve a better future for themselves and their communities. For a truly sustainable peace, young people – both victims and perpetrators of violence – need to have a stake in the peace process.
In the face of tremendous challenges, young people around the world are actively making positive contributions to peace. But in order for more young people to make a change, they need safe spaces to discuss the challenges they face and the ideas they have – both within their communities and with those in power.
In northeast Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency is now in its tenth year. Young people have been at the heart of the conflict – whether as perpetrators or victims of extreme violence – yet they are all too often excluded from formal and traditional responses to the violence. As a result, they have become increasingly disengaged from society, and ideal targets for mobilisation by Boko Haram and other armed groups. Without safe spaces, and support networks, this cycle won’t stop.
Over the past year, we’ve been working with local civil society organisations in northeast Nigeria, to set up 12 Youth Peace Platforms. The groups target the most vulnerable and excluded youth living in communities that have been under the control of Boko Haram, or that face repeated attacks. With over 1,000 members, these physical and digital networks mean young people have a safe space to talk, to listen and to learn with other young people who have had similar experiences.
"Being a part of the YPP, I feel like things can actually change. I feel like I can make a difference. For the first time since I can remember, I have hope for my future and hope for the future of my community."
These safe spaces are also vital in providing an opportunity for people with different views, faiths, or ethnicities to come together and begin to overcome the deeply entrenched misconceptions they have of each other. They are providing young people in communities with the skills to analyse and resolve conflicts and become true ambassadors for peace.
As well as a safe space to engage with each other, and their communities, young people also need to feel able to talk to those in power, without fear. Last year, we conducted a study with nearly 500 young people across five conflict contexts, as part of the UN Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security. A recurring theme, was that young people felt they didn’t have the political space or opportunities to share their thoughts and contribute to building peace – they felt sidelined and silenced.
In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the volatile political context has led to huge mistrust between local communities and government and security agencies. Young people don’t trust the authorities, and they in turn see the youth as trouble makers. Over the past year, we’ve been working with local partner organisations to create safe spaces for young people to connect with those in authority. Through workshops, we’ve brought together young people and security forces to talk in a safe space – a real breakthough in strained civil-military relations in the region. Together, they’ve now created a joint committee to continue conversations, and are even appearing on radio shows together to answer questions from other communities affected by conflict in the region.
In 2015, the United Nations Security Council recognised youth as a ‘unique demographic’which should be involved in shaping peace, justice and reconciliation. To do this, they need safe, inclusive spaces where they can rebuild trust and confidence, begin to overcome the traumas of war, and start to forge their own initiatives to build sustainable peace.