I grew up in the midst of a civil war in Sri Lanka. I have lived through the curse of violence and seen the prejudice and hate passed on by one generation to another.
Sri Lanka has experienced many cycles of violence over the years. At each cycle, it was the youth that were targeted by violent groups to brainwash and recruit for their causes. These youth were promised justice, equality, and prosperity if they stood up and fought the “other” (or at least reminded the other of their rightful place). At the end of these cycles of violence, young men found themselves dead on the battle front, mutilated and scarred, and traumatized or with distorted consciousness and understanding of humanity as a result of embracing these violent ways. At the end of the violence there was no justice, but rather a society of impunity. No equality or equity, but rather a growing chasm between the rich and the poor in our nation. There was certainly no prosperity, but rather a nation that squandered its resources and potential and sacrificed opportunities in order to embrace violence, hate, and prejudice.
If we have learned something from history, it seems we don’t learn from history. The same mistakes continue to happen over and over again. A new generation falls prey to the same tactics of being sold a folly in exchange for their loyal sacrificial submission to hate. This is the reality in so many war torn nations and the growing reality in nations at risk of violent conflict.
Moderate societies spend all their energy and focus on adults for obvious reasons. The for-profit sector focuses on adults because they are their main market group, politicians focus on the adult population because they are the voter base, and even religious communities focus on adults because they have influence over the family unit. The public sector has a disproportionate level of investments in adults as well. However, gangs and violent extremist groups devote their attention to youth. As they are the only ones doing so, they place themselves in a prime position to win the loyalty of youth. In societies and countries where youth have limited opportunities and are losing their capacity to hope for a better future, they are more likely to fall prey to the schemes and manipulations of these violent extremist groups.
I have had the privilege of working with youth and creating youth movements for sustainable peace in my own country and leading a global movement working with peacebuilders in 13 nations. Our movement, Global Unites, is committed to inspiring, connecting, and equipping a new generation of peacebuilders to transform their nations. We don’t focus on youth because we see them as a risk, we invest in youth because we see them as the linchpin for sustainable peace and national transformation. Though there are many important reasons to integrate youth into peacebuilding, here I offer two.
The Demographic Majority
Peacebuilding movements and initiatives that seek sustainable impacts need to address changing demographics and proactively seek to counter emerging cycles of violence. Youth populations make up a significant portion of developing countries, especially countries recovering from conflict. Therefore, focusing on these emerging decision makers for both society and their generation is crucial for positive peace.
Despite this, most peacebuilding initiatives are conceptualized, implemented, and evaluated by those who don’t represent these demographics or haven’t placed youth as the central focus of their peacebuilding efforts. They create interventions that are not relevant to, or informed by, a major demographic group in the nation of engagement. Rendering youth and children a ceremonial place at the table or offering them initiatives that are given to them as opposed to created by them undermines their value and the capacity of their sustainable impact for peace.
Youth are Mentally, Socially, and Emotionally Flexible
Harmful ideologies that have led to the creation of violence and challenged sustainable peace have often not taken root in the hearts and minds of a nation’s children and youth. Inherited ideologies can be challenged, alternate perspectives can be infused, and a new identity and culture can be encouraged among a new generation. This requires focus and authentic commitment to the youth and children we serve. Breaking cycles of violence begins by breaking the passing down of inherited prejudice and any justification of violence. This has to start young in order for us to see sustainable results. Efforts to alter decades-long thinking patterns, prejudice, and memories of injustice and violence in the minds of the older generation are incredibly challenging. Though it may have temporary results, relying on these generations for sustainable impact may be unrealistic. However, if the seeds of key elements for sustainable peace are conceived in the hearts of a nation’s youth, transformation in that nation is inevitable.
I invite those interested in peacebuilding to see youth as their primary demographic and a resource to sustain peace.
Prashan de Visser is the founder of Global Unites, an organization that aims to inspire, connect and equip youth to transform global societies through movements promoting nonviolence and reconciliation. He is a 2015 graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Master’s in International Peace Studies program.