Empowerment: Children & Youth: Key Debates & Implementation Challenges

This section presents a short summary of some of the key debates and implementation challenges discussed by academics and practitioners in relation to the process of including children and youth in peacebuilding processes.

The points covered are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather illustrative of main areas of concern. They are organized by four sets of issues:

  • Consideration of local cultures and customs
  • Consideration of the diversity of children and youths situations and agendas
  • Children and youths involvement at the different stages of peacebuilding programs
  • Material constraints of children and youths approaches
These elements and other dimensions of the concrete implementation of the children and youths agenda are detailed in the key documents and the wide range of guidelines presented at the end of this section.

Differences between and across local cultures and contexts

The approach and experience of children and youth should also be linked to each social-cultural context.

Socio-cultural definitions of 'child' and 'youth'

Defining who are children and who are youths and how to consider them in a given context requires the use of what some practitioners call a 'culturally-appropriate lens.' Indeed, the practice demonstrates that 'age of majority' is attained at different ages according to different religions, cultures and legal systems. In many cultures, 'youth' is not measured by either physical or intellectual development alone, or by laws. Social position and responsibilities, economic status, religious roles, and, sometimes, political expediency, define youth differently (even up to ages 35 and 40 in some African countries). The situation of war also "makes 'growing-up' a matter of surviving, often turning a child into the sole caretaker of his/her younger siblings or a relentless warrior. A child thus acquires a de facto status of adulthood."1 Therefore, there is a need to think critically and flexibly about how youth are defined. Some practitioners have also shown how important it was, depending on local circumstances, to enlarge the body of individuals considered under the denomination of youth to refer to a group of individuals who, "particularly in war-torn societies, and especially where conflict has been protracted, [...] is distinct from the rest of the population in that it often contains those that are both economically marginal and politically franchised but who practically have very little real decision-making power. At the same time they are often idealistic, desire to make a societal contribution, are motivated to effect change, and, as war survivors, have special skills, knowledge, needs, and, perhaps, traumas."2  Go to Definitions and conceptual issues

The limits of tight definitions

Definitions are important as they have concrete implications for policy and programs, as most agencies try to categorize their 'beneficiaries.' Indeed, overly flexible definitions of youth may hurt adult intervention programming; too tight definitions may also prove ineffective or create conflict. For example, there are many examples of girl or boy soldiers not admitted to NGO rehabilitation centers because they had just past the cut-off age of 18.3 Many former adolescent soldiers in the Sierra Leone DDR program also 'aged out' of family tracing and reunification programs because they had turned 18.4

Another common challenge concerning former combatants is the situation of those who joined fighting as children and are discharged as adults. Post-war youth "need to learn life skills in addition to livelihood skills. Life skills mean giving the youth multi-purpose capabilities that will ensure that they become complete citizens with psychological, intellectual and social skills that allows them to survive in society."5 From that point of view, some practitioners consider that the situation of youth is often worse that the children as they form part of "a grey definitional and legal area that consequently results in them not being adequately protected during all phases of the peace process."6

The importance of cultural sensitivity

Most practitioners also emphasize the importance of designing programs and interventions that are culturally appropriate and sensitive, taking into consideration families and communities' strategies and understanding when working with children and youth.7

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Diversity of children and youth's situations and agendas within a given context

The risks of homogenizing

In policy and the programming it informs, youth is often treated as a homogeneous category that isolates this age group from the rest of society. UNDP underscores that approaches based on conceptions of youth as a self-defining, cohesive group are "informed by a stereotyped vision and therefore are bound to lead to flawed responses." Age-based definitions, UNDP argues, must be complemented "by an understanding of youth as a transition from childhood to adulthood." Accordingly, youth strategies and programs must take the inherent complexity of the notion of youth as a social and functional construct into consideration.8 In post-war contexts, the term also applies to a wide diversity of experiences and roles; these need to be acknowledged as they reflect different pathways.9

The critics of targeting youth organizations and youth councils

As with other approaches which target specific groups in a given society, the strategy of international actors has been to place a strong emphasis on youth organizations, youth NGOs and leaders. As a recent UNDP report emphasizes, this approach may be problematic if employed alone as "youth movements might replicate existing societal patterns, and be dominated by the most articulate and socially engaged young people. Engaging with them does little or nothing for the vast majority of young people-- often the most marginalized ones-- who do not belong to youth organizations."10

It is important to note that this argument is made more generally when discussing the modalities of supporting local civil societies as targeting specific groups in population (by opposition to a holistic approach of civil society development) may encourage divisions, further the marginalization of some groups and at least induce some bias.11 Practitioners therefore recommend to not limit the emphasis on youth to the financial support of some organizations but to get a broader view of the contribution and active participation of youth in peacebuilding processes and to mainstream all programs accordingly.

Another dimension of the debate has been concerning the support to youth councils and forums which have attracted widespread support in the recent years, in particular in the context of socio-economic programs. Here, outsiders do not support existing groups but the creation of consultation mechanisms which are generally of provisional nature. The extent to which they bolster youth participation in political decision-making processes has been discussed. First, there is some debate over whether or not youth councils actually address the primary reason youth are opting out of the political system. "It can be argued that the formal political system is increasingly regarded by young people not so much as 'boring' but rather as irrelevant, inaccessible or both things at the same time."12 In other words, youth forums and councils may not recognize the real reasons and obstacles that deter youth from actively participating in decision-making processes. There is also criticism that youth councils are being promoted as a top-down strategy, whereby the international community perceives that these forums will provide incentives for participation, but there is actually no or low demand from the youth. Another key challenge is that youth forums (as youth organizations) may not actually be representative of the young population. There may not be an agreed upon 'youth agenda.' Youth are a heterogeneous group and have differing needs. Therefore, youth councils may not be nearly as representative of the youth population's needs as proponents may like to believe. Additionally, youth councils are susceptible to manipulation and exploitation for reasons that may not represent real youth needs and desires. "Such forums can also be gender-biased, especially because girls might feel more 'represented' by women's organizations."13 Last but not least, some critics have noted that these different forms of forums have often actually had little impact as most of them were consultative exercises: "Young people were free to say what they wanted and the power structures were free to ignore what they said."14 To address these limits, a recent UNDP report recommends the adoption of another kind of approach to "make youth participation part of decision-making structures on an ongoing, sustainable basis."15 This requires a shift in thinking from consulting youth to putting young people, in all their diversity, at the centre of the process for developing policy and programs.

Another bias mentioned by some practitioners and which is common to most civil society programs is the impact of donor funding and international aid, with an increased impact in the case of youth as the most qualified may be incited to move away from civic and political participation by short-term aid-related employment.16

The importance of ensuring an engagement in the local community

Most success stories are those who show a strong involvement of youth groups' activities in the life and projects of their community. This ensures that the members of the group are not the only one to benefit from the initiative as other young people but other adults are also affected by their work and encouraged by their example.17Therefore, instead of designing youth programs, some researchers and practitioners have recommended involving youth in the design and implementation of programs that are community focused. These are thought to "have much wider peacebuilding implications given the benefits in terms of power and self-esteem that are accrued to youth who are engaged and active and the spin-off effects for a larger social group than the peer group or school; that is, they affect whole communities."18

Community-based approaches are also thought to be the most appropriate to address the situations of the most vulnerable children, in particular in contexts where the level of socio-economic disintegration is advanced.19

Researchers and practitioners alike have also stressed the importance of approaching the situation of children and youth in a holistic manner "that embraces the family, the community and local cultural conditions."20 A research on different situations in South-Asia emphasizes in particular to take into consideration the following dimensions:21

  • The role of family and community in mediating and mitigating stresses upon the young;
  • The effects of conflict upon intra-family and intra-community dynamics;
  • The role of children and youth in self-healing and in healing the psycho-emotional suffering of family and community members;
  • Local understandings of misfortune, unease and distress caused by conflict, and local responses to address the perceived problems;
  • The relationship between children and youth's experience of conflict and their attitudes towards violence as a means of resolving problems.
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Children and youth's involvement at the different stages of peacebuilding programs

Practitioners working with children and youth have emphasized the importance to involve these groups in "the entire process of developing activities and services. This is the only way to ensure that projects address the needs of the target group. It is particularly important for young people to be trained in youth work. This is essential to ensure the ongoing supply of new recruits for the work in the youth centres."22 Young people's participation in policy and program design and implementation is now considered as an essential good practice. However, this requires specific tools and methods as the exercise may raise many ethical issues. Among the organizations who have been the more active in developing such guidelines is Save the Children.23

However, as young people prove themselves to be effective and essential actors in their communities, they need to receive support from adults. "Partnerships between young people and adults must therefore affirm reciprocal and mutually supportive roles."24

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Material constraints

Programs aiming at empowering children and youth often suffer from insufficient funding and short-term perspectives. Too often, these concerns also fail to be actually integrated in policies and programs from the outset;25 beyond the relative attention to the reintegration of child soldiers, most programs targeting children and youth are merely ads-on. Even if there is an increasing awareness and expertise on the subject, it is not always available soon enough and in sufficient quantity to gather all the information requested to get an informed understanding of the specificities of the situations of children and youth in the given context.
Go to Women and gender issues: Limits of add-on approaches and gender quotas

1. Yvonne Kemper, "Youth in War to Peace Transitions Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management," Berghof Report No. 10 (January 2005), 8-9.
2. Siobhan McEvoy-Levy ed. Troublemakers or Peacemakers? Youth and post-accord peacebuilding (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) and Alex Obote-Odora, "Legal Problems with Protection of Children in Armed Conflict," Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 6, no. 2 (June 1999).
3. McEvoy-Levy ed., Troublemakers or Peacemakers? Youth and post-accord peacebuilding.
4. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, "Youth Speak Out: New Voices on the Protection and Participation of Young People Affected by Armed Conflict" (January 2005), 28.
5. Angela McIntyre and Thokozani Thusi, "Children and Youth in Sierra Leone's Peace-Building Process," African Security Review 12, no. 2 (2003).
6. Ibid.
7.See for instance N. Boothby, "Working in the War Zone: A Look at Psychological Theory and Practice from the Field," Mind and Interaction 2 (1990), 30-36.
8. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis?," United Nations Development Programme, 2006, 74.
9. Michael Wessells, Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection (Harvard University Press: 2007), 5-8.
10. UNDP, Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis?, 75-76.
11. Jarat Chopra and Tanja Hohe, "Participatory Intervention," Global Governance 10 (2004), 291.
12. UNDP, "Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis?," 25.
13. Ibid., 26.
14. Ibid, 75-76.
15. Ibid.
16. See for instance in the case of the youth in Kosovo the analysis by Julie Mertus, "Improving International Peacebuilding Efforts: The Example of Human Rights Culture in Kosovo," Global Governance, 10, 333-351(2004).
17. Jo Boyden, Jo de Berry, Thomas Feeny, and Jason Hart. "Children Affected by Armed Conflict in South Asia: A Review of Trends and Issues Identified Through Secondary Research," University of Oxford, Refugees Studies Centre (January 2002), 53.
18. Siobhan McEvoy-Levy, Children as Social and Political Agents: Issues in Post-Settlement Peace Building, Kroc Institute Occasional Paper #21 (December 2001), 26
19. See for instance in the case of Northern Uganda: Erin Baines, Eric Stover, and Marieke Wierda, War-Affected Children and Youth in Northern Uganda: Toward a Brighter Future. (Chicago: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2006), 22.
20. Boyden, de Berry, Feeny, and Hart, Children Affected by Armed Conflict in South Asia: A Review of Trends and Issues Identified Through Secondary Research, 52. See also Boothby, Working in the War Zone: A Look at Psychological Theory and Practice from the Field, 30-36.
21. Ibid.
22. Martina Fischer and Astrid Fischer, "Youth Development: A Contribution to the Establishment of a Civil Society and Peacebuilding. Lessons Learned in Bosnia and Herzegovina," Berghof Working Papers #2, 28.
23. Among the publications of Save the Children International, see in particular "So You Want to Consult with Children?," A toolkit of good practice: how to get started, organise a consultation, ensure quality follow up and more (November 2003); "So You Want to Involve Children in Research," A toolkit supporting children's meaningful and ethical participation in research relating to violence against children (2004). Save the Children UK has published: "DIY Toolkit: Improving your community - getting children and young people involved," October 2005 (This guide provides tried and tested methods for encouraging young people to become actively involved in local community regeneration), "Practice Standards in Children's Participation," January 2005 (This publication presents a set of practice standards developed by Save the Children on the basis of its experience in children's participation in countries across the world), "Empowering Children and Young People: Promoting involvement in decision-making," January 1997 (This is a practical resource for professionals and young people to help children contribute to decisions that affect them, as individuals and as a group).
24. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, "Youth Speak Out: New Voices on the Protection and Participation of Young People Affected by Armed Conflict," 28.
25. UNHCR, Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (May 2004), 3.2, 3.4.

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