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Untangling the myths surrounding youth and violence


Martha Mutisi

The global youth population will reach 2.5 billion by 2025, which is increasingly regarded as a source of socio-economic and political concern. The perception persists that youth are instruments of violence — causing insecurity rather than contributing to peace. However, there is a growing body of evidence to the contrary, and the UN’s Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security concluded that only a small fraction of youth are involved in violence.

It is important to demystify perceptions of youth as drivers of violence to ensure inclusive and sustainable development and to understand the more prominent and powerful role youth play in fostering stable, secure communities.

How youth contribute to peace and inclusion

Rather than defining youth by their experiences with violence, there is more value in analyzing the ways young people manage (with only minimal support) to challenge cultures and institutions of violence and exclusion.

Young people are demonstrating that they have a vested interest in peaceful, stable, and healthy communities. IDRC-supported research in South Africa found that even in fragile communities affected by gang violence, youth are carving out zones for peace. Apartheid left a legacy of high levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality, and a breakdown of social services in South Africa, yet young men and women are becoming architects of more peaceful urban communities by participating in local peace committees and income-generation clubs.

Young Africans are also breaking down barriers for political participation, carving out spaces for dialogue with policymakers, pushing for citizen engagement, and demanding accountability from public institutions. For example, in the wake of four decades of political and economic challenges in Zimbabwe, 60% of the 5.6 million people who registered to vote in 2018 were below the age of 40. Youth-led social movements have grown exponentially in the country.

Engagement for health and security

IDRC research partners have identified many ways that youth are contributing to community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust, for example, young Zimbabweans are engaged in collating and compiling information on the pandemic. They are working to provide the population with credible information that not only enhances prevention measures, but also confronts the risk of panic, fear, hate speech, and stigma. Similar responses are underway in Uganda and Kenya, where young people are using virtual platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness of COVID-19 and to highlight the importance of inclusive, gender-sensitive, and human-rights based approaches in responding to the pandemic.

Growing evidence points to young people’s ability to use existing platforms to promote peace and security. In Tanzania and Kenya, researchers examined how young men and women participate in a network of local early warning and violence prevention groups called “nyumba kumi”. This engagement in community policing built a strong culture of collaboration with law enforcement and policymakers while also positioning youth as leaders in addressing the governance challenges facing their communities.

These efforts demonstrate that youth deserve support to develop initiatives and play an active role in sustainable development.

Understanding the causes and drivers of insecurity

Young men and women’s experiences with insecurity and violence do not occur in a vacuum, and IDRC-supported research shows that youth involvement in violent groups cannot be attributed to only one cause. The findings provide opportunities for policymakers to become more conversant with the multiple and often complex drivers of youth violence.

Research in Kenya and Uganda, for example, identifies a complex and cumulative interaction of social, economic, and political forces that lead youth to engage in violent extremism, while research in Mali and Burkina Faso concludes that economic factors alone do not drive radicalization. Research in South Africa revealed multiple reasons for youth participation in gang violence, including the breakdown of social bonds and the absence of role models. Given this reality, policy interventions that seek to promote social cohesion can be more effective when they address the psycho-social needs of young people.

If economic factors do not easily and sufficiently explain youth violence, then more research is needed to understand what does motivate young people to engage in and disengage from violence. One strategy that can be employed by policymakers is to interrogate youth employment programs that are designed to address violence. Indeed, as much as economic drivers of violence have been noted in previous research, more evidence is needed to confirm this correlation. This research gap has spurred further IDRC investment in Africa and Latin America to investigate the links between economics and security.

IDRC-supported research that delves into the complex role of young people in peace and security processes makes clear that viewing them as instruments of violence is not only bereft of evidence but detrimental to effective policies on security and violence prevention. Research on youth and security has helped to shine a light on the multiple identities young people possess and the numerous interactions that they navigate during adolescence and young adulthood. In addition to understanding youth experiences of violence, policymakers can also enrich their responses by tapping into youth-led solutions to peace and security.