UN Women Regional Office for East and Southern Africa hosted an African Youth Conference from 23rd – 25th October with over 350 young people converging at the UN Offices in Nairobi to discuss the challenges that are facing the youth in Africa and resolve to offer youth driven solutions in collaboration with the UN, respective African governments, civil society, private sector and youth led organizations. The theme was on unleashing the potential of youth, prioritizing investment in Africa Youth within the post-2015 Agenda.
The last day of the conference focused on youth action in ending violence and other harmful practices against young women and girls with a break-out session on Countering Violent Extremism: Turning the Tables on Recruitment and Indoctrination of youth by extremist agendas. The discussions were led by youth from various backgrounds including a human rights activist, researchers, youth leaders from North, Central and East Africa. The aim of the session was to deconstruct the narrative around young people who are involved in violent extremism either voluntarily or involuntarily engaging and being indoctrinated to join extremist groups, and to switch the narrative to youth as drivers of change and agents of peace. There were rich discussions with the panellists sharing their experiences and expertise on CVE, some of them who’ve had unfortunate first-hand experiences either as members of marginalized communities or as individuals who had been forced to become child soldiers in dictator regimes.
The discussion also unpacked the causes that drive young people into violent extremism including the common push and pull factors and structural causes e.g. lack of education or miseducation, misrepresentation of religion, and socio-economic contexts. However, sometimes, the causes are not as straightforward and are becoming more unusual such as the rise of nationalism and use of social media to spread propaganda to lure young people. Toxic masculinity was also noted as a reason why young men and boys end up in extremist groups. They may feel like it is a way to prove to themselves and those around them that they are “real men”. In addition, marginalization and lack of respect for human rights in counter terror efforts by some governments has resulted in the loss of many lives. This has in turn made young people seek revenge to avenge the wrongful deaths of loved ones which is one of the selling points for many extremist groups. The proliferation of arms and weapons especially in marginalized communities has made them easily accessible and can be catastrophic if found in the wrong hands as we so often witness in reports of attacks and killings on the news and elsewhere.
A key point of the conference was not only to discuss challenges that Africa’s youth face, but for them to be part of solution finding process. In the case of CVE, the media was identified as one those responsible for the negative portrayal of African youth as perpetrators of violence but is also crucial in turning the story around and instead questioning why young people are joining extremist groups or resorting to acts of violence. This in turn can be used to hold governments accountable. The reintegration of former child soldiers or members of extremist groups into their societies is a huge challenge. Most of the time they are shunned as outcasts and denied opportunities that would otherwise help them rebuild their lives. There are several programmes and initiatives from organizations like UNICEF that focus on this but such programmes were noted to be too general, and lacking focus in terms of addressing the specific experiences of individuals. The UN was also challenged to hold Member States accountable. Many of the countries that profit from war or the trade of arms and weapons are the same ones that sit on the UN Security Council. At the same time, the voices of the youth are rarely heard at such high levels. This is why, the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on recognizing the role of young people in maintaining and promoting peace and security is so important. It gives the youth a platform and a seat at the table at the highest level of decision making to influence decisions that ultimately affect them the most.
Keeping with the spirit of the conference of the youth claiming back their spaces and futures and holding relevant stakeholders accountable, the Outcome Document has reflected the ideas and commitments from sessions like these throughout the conference. It reiterates that the future is for the African youth and now is the time for them to bring about the changes they wish to see fulfilled.