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Why Youth Matters

Do the insecurities of young people contribute to conflict situations?

January 5, 2006

Do the insecurities of young people contribute to conflict situations?

The uniformed woman glances at my ID, flashes a toothy grin and waves me forward, still caressing the trigger of her AK-47 as if it were a Barbie doll, a remote control or a new-fangled iPod.

She is young. Her proudly donned fatigues and her Tamil Tiger cap remind me of the game-day paraphernalia sported by teenage Cincinnati Bengal fans in my neck of the global woods.

But this imagery is worlds apart from this borderland checkpoint in northern Sri Lanka. Many Tamil people, who live there, argue that they are a distinctly different nation. They call it Tamil Eelam — and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are willing to fight for it.

On to another corner of the world where young people face tremendous challenges. Among my first memories of Central America are the images of bustling and vibrant outdoor markets. They were full of peculiar sounds, inviting smells and brilliant colors.

In particular, I remember weaving my way through a packed Nicaraguan market and being engulfed by street hawkers and under-age hammock sellers. They were eager to sell their wares to a Gringo whose government had sold their forefathers "a bag of goods" through years of shortsighted interventions.

Above the harmonious chatter of these buyers and sellers, I can make out heated debates by the local youth on university spending cuts. There were also muffled rants on U.S. imperialism, failed national governments and rampant unemployment.

In subsequent years, I learned through interactions with young Nicaraguans how my homeland had extended a tragic colonial legacy in their country. U.S. confederates invaded in the mid-1800s, and U.S. Marines invaded again in the early 1900s.

In addition, the U.S. government financially supported the dictatorial Somoza dynasty by pouring illicit "Contra" funds into the nation — and leaving a heritage of broken promises in its wake.

Other memories, however, hit even closer to home. As a Spanish-language teacher at JFK Middle School in Central Florida, my students often shared with me their frustrations with home life, with school life — and with life, period. I was shocked to learn about their common struggles with acceptance, drugs, sex and violence.

All of my students articulated fears about their present and their future. A few years later, some of these students had already overdosed and burned out. A few are currently in college — and more than a few are currently sloshing through the Iraqi oil fields in their own military fatigues.

Put all the pictures together — the youthful face of militancy and "liberation" in Iraq, not to mention the recent youth riots in France — and the evidence is pretty clear. It's hard to be a young person in this age of globalization and rapid social change. Change is happening at an alarming pace and, unfortunately, no one seems to care.

According to recent UN reports, unemployment rates among youths remain two- to three-times that of their older cohorts, constituting some 40% of global underemployment. More disconcerting, however, is that nearly 85% of the world's one billion young people, aged 15-24, currently reside in the so-called "Third World."

Remember the revolutionary upheavals and social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s? Back then, many social scientists focused on the image of the "angry young man." Recent scholarship has targeted other metaphorical images and social stereotypes.

Even so, the contemporary focus on terror networks, social movements and undocumented migrants remains full of age and gender subtexts.

The "angry young man" of the 1960s lives on in visions of al Qaeda militants, New Orleans looters, anarchist social activists and law-breaking "migrantes." They are all feared as threatening a "pure" and patriotic self-identity.

Without falling prey to such generalizations and ideology-driven stereotypes, there are some very real consequences of not formulating local and national development policies that directly address at-risk youth.

Historical and contemporary case studies demonstrate the importance of considering the insecurities of youth as a catalyst for many conflict situations, which are usually couched in terms of class, religion or ethnicity.

Poignant examples emerge from South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Sri Lanka's tragic heritage of armed anti-state militancy among Tamil and Sinhalese identity groups originally was birthed among frustrated young people marginalized by respective leaders. In Nepal, Maoist guerrillas draw support even today from the ranks of the unemployed rural youth living in the mountains.

In Latin America, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Zapatistas in Mexico first mobilized among disaffected youth communities dreaming of better futures and better representation.

In more recent years, Latino youth frustrations have fragmented from organized revolutionary struggle to a networked diffusion of gangs, illicit trade and mass emigration.

In the Middle East, meanwhile, groups on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle have marketed calls for revolution, jihad and patriotism to the poor and minority youth on the fringes of respectability in each community.

The same holds true in Iraqi violence. In each case, the failure to satisfy youth concerns has swelled ranks of militant movements and security forces with young recruits.

Therefore, youth-focused policies have been cited as one of three key leverage points — along with private sector engagement and enhanced police training — in preventing deadly and protracted civil conflict.

Those youth who can find work are often marginalized into low-paying temporary jobs. It is difficult for young people across the globe to access necessary credit for self-employment and entrepreneurship.

In conflict zones, youth are even more marginalized and often are unable to reintegrate into civil society. For the sake of our shared security, not to mention our ethical, generational and familial duties, there is a need for a more focused engagement of youth concerns in the global public arena.

Therefore, we need to listen to and prioritize global youth concerns — and seek creative and collaborative solutions that allow them, and us, to truly thrive.

Read Part II: Global Youth — Between Marginalization, Militancy and Mobilization