Today is International Youth Day. Youth Day is celebrated globally on 12 August every year to bring youth issues to the attention of the international community and showcase the role of young people as essential partners in change. This year’s theme is ‘Youth Civic Engagement’. As peacebuilders, this encourages us to reflect upon how the participation of young people in politics and public life is crucial to the development of a more peaceful society.
Our research in Tunisia highlights that the opportunities for young people to engage politically, economically and socially are often missing. Now is a critical time to reflect upon how we can work with young people to develop their potential to contribute to change within their communities.
A quick Google news search of young people in Tunisia brings the following results: "In Tunisia, many young people heed the call of 'IS' and al Qaeda" and "Morocco bans young people from travelling to Tunisia in case they 'slip away' and join jihadists".
Whilst such stories of young Tunisian’s heading to fight in Syria tend to dominate our headlines, we forget about those young people who are building bridges across communities, helping to manage conflict and promote peace. On Youth Day, we should instead focus on those ignored by the headlines and who have the potential to make a positive contribution to peace in their communities.
Our team in Tunisia has carried out research into young people in marginalised suburbs of Tunis and researched the dynamics surrounding young people and smuggling in the interior region of Kasserine. Here are the stories of two inspiring young people we have worked with who are promoting peaceful behaviours in their communities:
Yousef* has been living in Douar Hicher, a marginalised suburb of Tunis, for his whole life. In 2014, International Alert began working there to build a greater understanding of youth marginalisation. Yousef says he used to be a “dirty” person, rapping, smoking and drinking. His life has changed in the last few years though as he became “clean”, taking more care of himself and working on his bodybuilding.
Through working as a researcher with Alert, Yousef has gained new friends, learned what it is like to work in a team and gained a thorough knowledge of the neighbourhood.
Religion is a source of tension in his community, particularly between conservative Salafists and those, like Yousef, who do not identify themselves as religious. Unemployment is rife and life is tough in Douar Hicher, demonstrated clearly when Yousef spoke about his friend who travelled to Syria: “He feels free there. He doesn’t have to pay tax.”
Amina is from the town of Feriana in Kasserine and worked with Alert staff to undertake research into youth engagement in smuggling. Previously, peacebuilding was an unknown concept to her, but she has since taken the initiative to find out more about our work and developed an interest in promoting peace.
For a young woman in Kasserine, there are limited occasions to socialise and engage with peers, so having the chance to discuss crucial issues, such as armed violence, smuggling and unemployment, which affect their lives, has been a great opportunity for her.
Amina hopes that the research will raise awareness of the problems that affect young people in her region and in turn encourage people to seek solutions.
Tunisia is a country in transition, with many of the fragilities that existed before the revolution still present, including corruption, inequalities and political exclusion. There now exists an opportunity to capitalise on young people as drivers of positive change, to reinforce the positive gains made in the transition to date, whilst also seeking to prevent future conflict.
As we celebrate International Youth Day and think about youth civic engagement, now is an important time to reflect on how we as peacebuilders can best support young people, like Yousef and Amina, to play a positive role in the transition processes.
*Both of the young people’s names in this blog have been changed to protect their identities.
Photo: Maison de l'image