The role of youth in fostering peace and security

August 09, 2019
Young men cooking
Celina de Sola / Glasswing International

In Central America’s Northern Triangle, a region plagued by gang violence and branded one of the most violent in the world, Glasswing International is tackling the complex factors associated with youth, violence, and poverty. The organization provides 1,200 young people in El Salvador and Honduras with practical skills-training and social support while rebranding youth as a positive force for change.

Research highlights

  • An organization in Central America is promoting peace and security through social enterprises in areas affected by gang-related violence.
  • Community security approaches across Kenya and Tanzania engage youth in community peacebuilding and address rising levels of violence in both countries.
  • Research in Mali and Niger is gathering evidence on the factors that lead to youth engagement and disengagement in conflict and violent extremist groups.

The extent of the gang problem in this region has resulted in the stigmatization of youth, particularly urban youth. Employers tend not to hire youth from neighbourhoods associated with gangs, making it difficult for them to gain work experience and develop appropriate skills. While lack of opportunity and marginalization can push young people to join gangs, membership can also offer protection from street violence, a sense of belonging, and a measure of social status.

Glasswing’s response is to offer a path to skills development as well as a sense of community. It identifies urban challenges that can become business opportunities for youth-led — and often women-led — social enterprises. In a supportive group environment, participating youth develop skills for the labour market and to address community issues. Their transition to work or further education is supported after completing the program.

In partnership with Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social and the Inter-American Development Bank, an IDRC grant is helping Glasswing to generate evidence from this experience to influence policies affecting youth in the region.

The Missing Peace: a call for inclusion

Glasswing is one of several successful IDRC-supported projects that contribute to addressing the gap in evidence-based analysis on the role youth can play in carving out secure, stable, and peaceful societies.

There are 1.8 billion youth aged 10 to 24 globally. This age group already represents a quarter of the world’s population and its numbers are expected to reach over 2.5 billion by 2025.

While youth are often perceived as driving unrest, a growing body of evidence makes clear that youth engagement is vital to fostering safe and inclusive communities. A recent UN Security Council-commissioned study explores the role that youth play in helping to establish and sustain peace in communities and regions around the world. The resulting report, The Missing Peace: Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security, draws on extensive consultation with youth, including over 260 focus group discussions, surveys of youth-led peacebuilding organizations, and direct interaction with more than 4,200 young people.

“Until we address the problem of young people’s exclusion, we will never prevent the issues of youth extremism, and so the priority has been on understanding what young people mean by meaningful participation and inclusion,” said lead author Graeme Simpson, speaking at an Ottawa launch of the report in April 2019.

Young people clearly indicated that all issues were youth issues, and that they wanted to have a say in reforms such as those affecting the education and justice systems. The study also found that youth need safe, protected spaces to pursue the innovation and creativity that foster peacebuilding. When such spaces are not provided by social institutions, young people are often driven to establish these venues for themselves.

Engaging youth for resilient and inclusive societies

IDRC funds nearly 40 youth-related projects that develop solutions based on the realities of local contexts and with a focus on security and justice. One of these is helping to address the rise of violence in Kenya and Tanzania by looking at how youth can be engaged in community peacebuilding. Kenya has imported the Nyumba Kumi community security approach from Tanzania, where it has been highly successful. Under this model, clusters of about 10 households work together and coordinate with law enforcement to address incidents of crime and violence in their area. More than 200,000 of these clusters now exist across Kenya.

Photo of panelists
IDRC / Greg Teckles
IDRC-supported researchers shared insights on spaces that young people use to engage in conflict prevention and long-term development in their communities. Clockwise: Celina de Sola, co-founder, Glasswing (El Salvador); Jeanine Abatan, researcher, Institute for Security Studies (Senegal); Martha Mutisi, senior program officer, IDRC (Nairobi); Malose Langa, associate senior researcher, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (South Africa); William John Walwa, Political Science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

Supported by IDRC, researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam are looking at how Nyumba Kumi can promote interaction and engagement between youth, communities, policymakers, and law enforcement. The project also seeks to change attitudes so that youth are seen as partners in preventing violent extremism and improving community security.

Research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa demonstrates how community-led public sector employment programs can successfully address both the immediate and root causes of urban violence. Supported by IDRC, this organization’s analysis of South Africa’s Community Work Program reveals key pathways to building community-level resilience to violence.

Understanding young people’s strategies to survive

IDRC-supported research in Mali and Niger seeks to provide a clearer understanding of the factors that lead young people to join extremist groups. These countries face a persistent threat of extremist violence, and the involvement of young women is becoming more common. Understanding how and why young men and women become involved with or choose to leave extremist groups can lead to effective policy responses to the threat.

Following many discussions with youth, Jeannine Ella Abatan, a researcher with the Institut d’études de sécurité, discovered that youth involvement or avoidance of extremist groups is the result of a complex mix of personal, social, religious, and economic reasons. She tells of one young man who resisted several recruitment attempts because his family had warned him about these groups and the extremists’ opinions did not reflect what he had learned in the Qu’ran.

Authorities are often reluctant to engage with those involved in violent extremism, but without direct interaction it is difficult to understand the circumstances that led youth to choose their path. The project has conducted more than 70 interviews with people involved in extremist violence and more than 80 interviews with people who have chosen not to be involved.

These projects give a voice to the next generation by engaging with youth on a range of societal issues. They also provide the evidence needed to foster strategies and policies for peace and security in the face of violence and conflict. Ultimately, global peace and sustainable development can only be achieved if we prioritize youth voices, agency, and leadership and focus on youth as resilient change agents rather than risks. 

Watch the Ottawa launch of The Missing Peace: Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security.

Watch a panel discussion with IDRC-supported researchers discussing the role of youth in peacebuilding, countering violent extremism, and sustainable development.