RPN 24 September 1997

9. Safe Places for Youth: issues of youth in conflict zones and disordered states by Angela Raven-Roberts and Bruce Dick

Conflict, crisis and 'complex emergencies' affect youth development in a number of ways. The devastation of educational, vocational and other basic services deprives young people of years of care and training, and creates generations of unskilled and unemployable populations. The economic collapse and slow deterioration of states in crisis and consequent lack of employment opportunities force many young people into a life of crime and a culture of violence. Their unaddressed needs and squandered potential make them politically volatile and a possible threat to stability and state reconstruction.

Years of social, political and economic turmoil and conflict affect the very structures and cultures of households and communities. Children and youth are not only physically displaced but literally dislocated from their normative life cycles, roles, status and responsibilities. The issues of reconstruction, reintegration and post-conflict recovery are thus, in essence, issues of youth and it is this generation which the process of reconstruction should be addressing.

The Safe Places for Youth Scheme, currently in action in a number of countries, provides models for the provision of services to youth and at the same time for galvanizing and harnessing their energy, creativity and potential.(1) These models can be replicated and expanded in crisis and post- conflict environments. Services have been provided in a variety of ways, through innovative ideas coordinated and implemented by youth themselves and by professional psychologists, social workers and teachers, or a combination of them. Strong, successful and sustainable programmes require the participation and commitment of youth. In crisis and emergency settings, establishing the trust, respect and participation of youth is the beginning of reconstruction efforts which have a ripple effect throughout the wider community.

Youth resources

Examing ways in which youth have survived, managed and reshaped the cultures of violence around them holds the key for capturing and building on their resilience and creativity. Research on communities affected by armed conflict reveals the myriad ways in which adolescents and youth have helped maintain family cohesion and contributed to community survival.(2) Girls have assumed a major role as heads of household, responsible for the protection and maintenance of family members. Boys and girls have crossed military zones, engaging in complex networks of exchange, barter and trade. Street children in urban areas have formed intricate social organisations and sharing mechanisms, utilising traditional forms of credit and mutual assistance. Youth leaders have been trained in refugee camps to educate their peers in health education, community organisation, public speaking and counselling. In countries such as Ethiopia during the famine of the 1980s, many NGOs were able to galvanize youth and secondary school age children to do basic health and nutritional assessments, and to help in information campaigns on health and other community issues.

Key components of Safe Places for Youth

UNICEF has identified several key components in the establishment of Safe Places for Youth:

i. Core goals: These can include enhancing practical knowledge, personal strength and coping and decision-making skills. Such goals can stand alone, be incorporated into strategies to achieve specific objectives or complement other developmental goals.

ii. Location: Safe Places for Youth can be established in existing facilities and can be open according to demand and available resources. Outreach is necessary for promotion and information.

iii. Youth participation: This is essential in creating and running Safe Places in order to help create a youth-friendly environment. Professionals supporting Safe Places should be skilled in supporting youth participation and leadership.

iv. Core activities: These include the provision of information, non-judgmental listening, discussion and social and recreational activities. Safe Place discussions may lead to the identification of activities which youth want to undertake in order to meet other needs, such as formal education, vocational training, income generation and community service. Safe Places can add such activities to core activities or work in collaboration with other organisations and service providers.

v. Training: Safe Places for Youth are strengthened through training young people to support their peers in various roles; training professionals in counselling and working cooperatively with youth; and training both peer and professional leaders in project planning and evaluation.

vi. Strategies for monitoring and evaluation: These should generate quantitative information about how Safe Places are used and how specific objectives are met, as well as qualitative information (including personal stories, programme development reports and group statements). Involving youth in monitoring and evaluation can enhance their sense of ownership as well as their ability to contribute to maintaining and improving Safe Places for Youth.

The core activities identified above - provision of useful information, non-judgmental listening and discussion, and referral to other services - all figure more or less prominently in existing Safe Places for Youth. They occur as central activities of the Centres d'Ecoutes in Mali; as informal activities within schooling at the Samaritan Orphanage in Malawi; among the activities in multi-purpose youth centres in Grenada and Mexico; and during recreational, cultural and community service activities of the Youth Development Association in Bhutan. Almost all Safe Places include recreational and social activities, which attract youth, create an informal atmosphere and help build friendships. As their name suggests, Friendship Clubs in Former Yugoslavia offer primarily social activities to help refugee youth reconnect with society. Some of the main activities undertaken apart from the core activities include formal education, vocational training, income-generating projects and community service.

Wider application

In crisis and post-crisis affected societies, Safe Places can also be used to address specific issues arising from the demobilisation and reconstruction process. Youth can be mobilised for community mapping and reconstruction projects. They can help in literacy programmes and in the preparation of materials, drama and other cultural activities promoting health education, mine risk awareness, and other public issues. Mentorship and 'buddy' systems can be developed to help younger or orphaned children and former youth combatants. In societies such as Somalia and Sudan, where much cultural and historical material has been lost or destroyed though war, youth centres can be the focus for the re-documentation and re-telling of legends and traditions as a contribution to reshaping the future. Young people's own interest and link to global youth culture can be used in imaginative ways to initiate conflict resolution measures and to foster a culture of peace and reconciliation.

Angela Raven-Roberts is Project Officer in the Office of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF, New York; Dr Bruce Dick is Senior Advisor for Youth Health in the Health Section, UNICEF, New York.

1. UNICEF, Brian Hill Safe places for youth: programming, strategy and examples as identified through interviews with participants of the World Youth Forum of the UN system, 1996.

2. Chingono M The state, violence and development: the political economy of war in Mozambique, 1975-1992, 1996, Avebury; Richards P Fighting for the rain forest: war, youth and resources in Sierra Leone, 1996, Pluto Press; Nordstrom C 'Fieldwork under fire', Contemporary studies of violence and survival, 1995, University of California Press.

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October 1997