Earlier this year, the Foundation and Interpeace co-organised a ‘fishbowl dialogue’ entitled ‘Youth inclusion and the protection of civic space: from a policy commitment to a peace dividend’ as part of the 2020 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.
As part of the dialogue, Darshatha Gamage (Sri Lanka), Dania Rauda (El Salvador), Manal Mohammed Ahmed Al-Marwan (Yemen) and Bantayehu Demlie Gezahegn (Ethiopia) shared their reflections on what is needed to protect civic spaces for youth to organise for sustainable peace and development. The conversation in full is available on the Foundation’s Vimeo page, and the discussion is briefly summarised in a previous post on our blog.
To celebrate the five-year anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS), in a recent follow-up conversation we asked Darshatha, Bantayehu and Manal to share their thoughts on the fishbowl dialogue and on what is needed to translate policy into practice.
Looking back on the fishbowl dialogue, was there anything that stood out for you from the conversations in the inner and outer circles on what is needed to support and protect civic spaces for youth?
Darshatha: What stood out to me were the similar needs of young people from different countries. I felt this was a simple reflection of the lack of inclusion of youth in most of the world. There were differences in how we [those in the inner circle] perceived youth inclusion, but we agreed on what is required to promote greater youth participation: access to basic services and infrastructure, and more creative and inclusive spaces that not only provide opportunities for meaningful youth participation but also encourage more young people to work towards overcoming barriers to engagement.
The need for partnerships with like-minded partners to support young people and youth-led organization seems to be a common theme, as well as the importance of the international community being aware of the connotation that certain terms and words have in different contexts. Manal brought up a point about how ‘peace’ is perceived by some in Yemen as a Western concept, something that is imposed. In Sri Lanka, certain words like ‘good governance’ and ‘reconciliation’have become politicised as they have been part of political messaging without much substance.
Bantayehu: For me, there was consensus, both in the inner and outer circles, on the centrality of youth inclusion for sustainable peace and security. The various actors across different contexts acknowledged that there has so far been little progress in terms of concrete steps or systematic measures to bring youth to the centre of peacebuilding. This gave me the sense that the global community understands the problem but falls short when it comes to the solutions. But diagnosing the problem is a key first step to developing the solution.
Manal: I agree with all the points raised by Darshatha and Bantayehu. But one thing that stood out to me as missing from the conversation was the important role of women, and especially young women, in promoting peace. Women and youth are deliberately excluded from peacebuilding processes. In Yemen, young women are unfortunately living in a male-dominated environment and are not seen as able to contribute to decision making. In certain parts of the country, instability and violence make it more difficult for young women to leave their homes and participate in discussions and negotiations. For sustainable solutions to conflict, it is critical to involve young women in political and peace processes and to provide them with opportunities and safe spaces to raise their voices.
What can those in the outer circle and decision makers do to address the barriers to inclusion that young people face?
Darshatha: Those in the outer circle, many of them in high-level positions, can for example take the lead in making sure more young people are part of their teams and including a youth perspective in their work. This goes beyond staffing to making sure that young staff members have a seat in certain decision-making processes. Young people should also be part of designing programmes. When reaching out to communities, make sure that youth in the community are engaged.
Bantayehu: Most of the distinguished speakers in the outer circle spoke of their understanding of youth inclusion and civic space in their own contexts and highlighted what they are doing in their interventions (in relation to programmes, projects and funding). This is commendable. Yet, beyond the programmatic, I want to challenge them to think about what they – independently or collectively – can do to address more systematically and strategically the structural barriers (political, civic, economic) that stand in the way of youth inclusion.
Ensuring the meaningful representation of youth in political and peace processes, reforming education systems in ways that help youth unleash their innovative capabilities and supporting the economic empowerment of young people—these are some of the right steps in tackling these systemic barriers.
Manal: Those in the outer circle recognised the importance of engaging youth as leaders and partners, but in my experience, more is needed to identify and develop concrete strategies to empower young people to raise their voices. In Yemen, we have young people joining violent groups, often because they feel that it is the only way for them to contribute to society and make their voices heard. It’s a matter of providing them with leadership skills so that they feel comfortable engaging in civic spaces. This kind of empowerment can take place through training and capacity-building sessions, but also through simple actions like taking the time to listen to their hopes and fears. Even this seemingly small act of listening makes a difference.
Was there anything that you feel was not addressed by the outer circle in terms of what is needed to support and protect youth participation in civic space?
Darshatha: Again, I felt the outer circle could have focused more on how they could or are already engaging young people in their own programming, as well as in the programmes they support. It is important that the stakeholders who do understand the value of engaging young people take action and that they do this in a collaborative way, including young people – as partners – in conversations to design and implement initiatives.
Bantayehu: The question of whether there is a need for a more comprehensive and collective binding commitment in the form of a separate international treaty instrument was, I felt, not addressed. This would ideally be a UN convention, in which Member States who ratify the convention would be bound by international law to minimize and remove structural constraints for youth inclusion.
During the fishbowl session, there was recognition of key milestones so far, namely UN Security Council Resolution 2250 and The Missing Peace: Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security. These are, indeed, key achievements and we should aspire towards their full implementation. Yet, the peace and security dimensions are only one aspect of the challenges that youth face when it comes to meaningful inclusion.
Manal: We also need to take specific measures – including through empowerment and education initiatives – to engage those youth disproportionately affected by conflicts, including youth living with disabilities and Indigenous youth. It is important to respect the views of all youth, even those who have engaged in violence. The international community cannot assume that by inviting youth leaders from civil society they are representative of all young people.
At the same time, it is important for international actors to build strong partnerships with civil society and non-governmental organisations. My foundation, for example, has already developed strategies for empowering hard-to-reach youth, as well as improving their access to jobs through skills development. These strategies may help international actors in developing their programming.
What, in your opinion, is critical for actively promoting and protecting youth civic spaces?
Darshatha: It is critical to provide young people the means – that is, the capacity – to meaningfully engage in spaces and to recognise them as equal and viable partners. Lack of inclusion was reflected on in the discussions in relation to both structural and operational barriers. The need for structural reforms to give young people more opportunities for participation was clearly highlighted. The discussion also underscored that addressing lack of inclusion requires more than structural or legal frameworks. It is about their operationalisation. This is about giving space for youth, listening to and collaborating with young people and getting youth to meaningfully contribute.
Bantayehu: While young people around the world commonly face structural barriers to inclusion, there is a great deal of diversity in terms of the nature and extent of challenges across different contexts. This calls for solutions that are context-specific and that support local peacebuilding initiatives. This is a critical part of making sure so no one is left behind due to existing divides in opportunities, peace conditions, and socio-economic realities.
Manal: Disruptions in access to education and economic opportunities, both of which are critical to ensuring durable peace and reconciliation, mean that youth are adversely affected in contexts with shrinking civic space and contexts that experience armed conflict. Governments and the international community need to prioritise young people’s regular, systematic and meaningful engagement in decision making at all levels for the prevention and resolution of conflict, including in negotiating peace agreements. As the The Missing Peace report emphasises, a large youth population presents a unique demographic dividend that can contribute to sustainable peace and economic prosperity if inclusive policies are in place.