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Learning from youth leadership in peacebuilding

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Author, Copyright Holder: Rainah Umlauf

Following the DC launch of UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security last(link is external) month, the Washington Network on Children in Armed Conflict (WNCAC) hosted an online discussion with five young leaders who exemplify the important role that youth are playing to build peace and resilience in their communities. In Nigeria, India, Colombia, Morocco and Syria, these five young people are leading education initiatives that not only help improve learning outcomes, but also build emotional resilience and social understanding and equip their peers with leadership and conflict transformation skills.

The conversation with these five young leaders follows the resolution’s call to acknowledge the impact and reach of youth activists in peacebuilding. “Adequate attention is not paid to the constructive roles young people play in crisis and conflict situations,” Saji Prelis, Director for Children and Youth Programs at Search for Common Ground, said as he opened the discussion on June 16. “This is finally a chance to give young practitioners the space to talk about who they are, the work they are doing and the results they are achieving. This is a first step to highlight the young sheroes and heroes who are working tirelessly in conflict areas to build peace in their communities.”

Resolution 2250 also calls for greater youth involvement in peace and security issues, including peace agreements and post-conflict plans and greater youth participation in countering and preventing violent extremism. Young activists and practitioners like the ones present at the meeting last month are shifting the perception of youth in conflict areas, from victims to partners in peace and development processes.

  Below are the major themes of the discussion:

Lessons for International NGOs

The young leaders offered advice to international NGOs interested in supporting youth-led initiatives. “International NGOs have the knowledge and skills to relay to local youth,” Victoria Ibiwoye founder of OneAfricanChild(link is external), an organization that uses global citizen and peacebuilding education to generate more innovators and entrepreneurs in Nigeria, said. “These NGOs should serve as a mediator between stakeholders and youth. An international NGO can partner with the government, for example, and tell them ‘we have been working with these children and we trust them. They can get the job done.’” Paula Ramírez Diazgranados, the co-director of the program RESPIRA (link is external)which teaches mindfulness in public schools across the most conflict-affected areas in Columbia, attested that NGOs can help youth combine their passion with structure, by offering tools and how-to-guidance to young practitioners. Interestingly, Kh. Samuel Poumai, a peace education trainer with Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust (STEP)(link is external) in India, noted that “words like ‘peace’ and ‘violence’ often repel people.”  Instead, words such as ‘capacity building’ are often more successfully received. All five speakers emphasized the need to support small-scale, local initiatives to ensure context-dependent programs are developed in consultation with the local community. They also attested to the benefits of a peer-to-peer education model and mutual mentorship between students and teachers.

Social and Emotional Learning

“Before we disarm others, we must disarm ourselves.” Two of the young leaders repeated this advice, given to them by the Dalai Lama in an exchange facilitated by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) this past May, throughout the conversation. Increasing social and emotional understanding and resiliency is clearly a priority in their work with children and youth in conflict situations. Paula’s work in Colombia with RESPIRA deals directly with social and emotional learning; mindfulness, she explained, improves concentration and learning as it increases children’s ability to understand and manage their emotions.  “A part of resiliency is being at peace with your own self,” she said. As children and  youth connect with their inner selves, they are able to better manage their emotions and better able to concentrate and empathize with others, increasing academic success, lowering students’ stress levels, and promoting positive relationships and attitudes. Samuel echoed these successes; because of social and emotional learning practices, Samuel explained, “children have developed friendships with other communities, have increasing self-esteem, understand the origins of their feelings and have increasing leadership skills.” Victoria added that children need to gain self-awareness in order to understand and challenge the pressures of their community. Nousha Kabawat, the founder and director of Project Amal ou Salam(link is external), a volunteer organization that sponsors schools and provides workshops for 6,000 children in refugee areas in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and inside Syria, noted that many of their trainings for children are held underground, where children are not only physically out of harm's way, but where they are also mentally removed from violence, creating a truly safe space, physically and mentally.  

For more information on Social and Emotional Learning, see this Social and Emotional Learning for Peacebuilding on DM&E for Peace.

Results of Youth-Led Initiatives

Investing in youth is not simply “doing youth a favor,” as Manal Omar, head of USIP’s Center for the Middle East and Africa, said at the USIP launch of Resolution 2250 on June 14.  These five young leaders are clearly invested in running programs that lead to tangible results, and conducting evaluations to confirm and capture those results. In Pakistan, Saba Ismail, one of the founders of Aware Girls(link is external), a Pakistani organization that empowers women by strengthening their leadership capacity and advocates for equal access of women in leadership roles and social services, stated that according to a pre-survey before one of her trainings, 52% of participants did not believe in the equal rights of people of other religions to build worship places. According to the post-survey, on the other hand, 90% agreed that having a place to worship was a human right. Paula explained that a local university recently evaluated RESPIRA, which works in 22 schools across 4 regions in Colombia, and found that 90% of participating students improved across four indicators: increased attention and concentration, increased ability to manage emotions, increased quality of relationships between students, and increased quality of education provided by the teacher. Nousha and Samuel emphasized the importance of a tested approach that uses lessons learned to guarantee the relevance and effectiveness of their work. Victoria’s OneAfricanChild works with a community of several youth organizations to share best practices, ideas and success stories.

Peacebuilding in Peaceful Contexts

A question from the audience sparked an interesting discussion: How important are peacebuilding efforts and initiatives in peaceful contexts? The young leaders agreed that they are extremely important. “Peace is a mindset,” Victoria explained. In our interconnected world, messages of violence are transnational and investing in peace is critical even in in peaceful contexts. Saba agreed: “peace is something that is internal,” she said, “and everyone is responsible.”  The young leaders shared a sense of mutual responsibility; spreading a peace-oriented mindset in conflict situations is obviously crucial, but leaders and practitioners in peaceful contexts must also preemptively work to ensure that peacebuilding is a global phenomenon, not simply a reaction to violence.

“Kids are great imitators,” Nousha quoted towards the end of the discussion, “so give them something great to imitate.” These five young leaders are certainly giving the children in their communities something great to imitate, but they are also exemplifying that youth are not just imitators; these leaders prove that youth are active, effective peace practitioners. Resolution 2250 will hopefully bring light to more young practitioners and allow more youth to play an active role in global peacebuilding.  

This meeting of the Washington Network on Children and Armed Conflict (WNCAC)(link is external), a global forum for people concerned about children in armed conflict initiated by Search for Common Ground and the Displaced Children and Orphans Fund of USAID in 2004, was held in collaboration with the Education in Crisis & Conflict Network(link is external),  the United States Institute of Peace(link is external)and the (link is external)United Network of Young Peacebuilders(link is external).

For more information on UN Security Council Resolution 2250, see the Security Council Press Release(link is external)and this (link is external)toolkit(link is external)developed by UNOY Peacebuilders.(link is external)

Rainah Umlauf is a Design, Monitoring & Evaluation Intern at Search for Common Ground.