Sri Lanka’s youth are often viewed as firebrands for violence. It isn’t surprising considering the riots of ’83 to the almost monthly protests by university students, our youth have been at the centre of quite a number of violent events in the country’s history.
But that’s mostly what we have read or seen in media reports. Little has been said about the positive work of the youth. Since the ’83 riots, the armed conflict, post-war reconciliation and even disaster relief efforts, a large number of our youth – generation after generation – have been involved in volunteering and peace-building efforts.
Twenty six per cent of our total population consists of youth aged between 15 and 29. That’s a good quarter of the population who have the energy and enterprise to contribute towards positive change and are enthusiastic and keen to do so, but often not included at policy level discussions due to the biased disrepute they have gained over the years.
This isn’t solely a problem in Sri Lanka. It’s a global problem. In December 2015, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged the burning global need to involve youth in peace- building efforts and drafted Resolution 2250. It was unanimously adopted.
This resolution could not be more relevant for post-war Sri Lanka. Seven years after the brutal and bloody war, ethnic violence directed at minority groups has reared its ugly head again. Quite a few young people have been involved in these incidences of violence and who would be better at countering them than their peers?
‘Sri Lanka Unites’ is a youth group that has been actively involved in post-war reconciliation during the past few years. They are a, ‘by the youth for the youth’ group that uses theatre and exchange programmes to bring young people together. Ramzi Zain Deen, who heads ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ says, “The youth are one of the most neglected and important components in peace building around the world. Even in cases where the youth are used in such efforts they are often manipulated to serve political agendas.”
He said the present generation of youth experiences a new set of issues that have emerged during the seven years after the war. “These issues are very different from what was experienced by the generation that was considered youth during the war,” he said. “It’s those who were youth before and during the war who are making policy decisions now, but it is important to include the youth of post-war Sri Lanka in these policy discussions because they problems we face are different now.”
Ramzi believes that peace building must be instilled in children at a very early age and training must continue throughout school life. “In peace building, the youth need soft skills. Not necessarily another subject in the classroom. They need to be given opportunities to connect and communicate with people of different faiths, backgrounds and regions.” he said.
Neshan Gunesekera, Policy Analyst Consultant on Youth and Young People at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), has similar views. He says, “It is important to instill in them the qualities, standards and skills to bring about changes like mediation skills, negotiation skills, etc. And Resolution 2250 tries to begin this conversation by trying to push the agenda for the youth and young people as peace agents bringing about necessary changes to conflicts in a peaceful way. We need more examples of that. That’s where the UN recognised a gap and UNFPA supported the resolution.”
He said the efforts made by young people in Sri Lanka clearly demonstrated their interest and enthusiasm, “In post-war Sri Lanka there are a lot of people involved in trust-building, peace-building, inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogues.” UNFPA Sri Lanka, has been working towards this goal by developing unique, custom-crafted youth policies for each province, where the youth are involved in the process. Generation to generation (G2G) panel discussions have also been held with youth and other stakeholders to fine-tune and draft policy recommendations on a number of areas including youth. If the efforts of the youth in peace building have not been overtly visible, then their effort in humanitarian aid is a fair attestation of it.
When the devastating floods washed over Sri Lanka in May this year, young people resorted to the social media to make united, countrywide effort to rescue victims and provide all forms of assistance and relief. Some Facebook pages that were created to organize relief efforts continue to function providing long-term assistance to those affected. Shayani Weerasinghe, an Environmental Scientist, who started the Flood Relief – Switchboard Facebook page, said she had worked for nearly four years in disaster resilience education and realized the timeliness of creating the page.
“What I noticed was that there were a lot of requests to help and information coming in on Facebook, but there seemed to be no way of connecting the two. These posts would also get lost on my news-feed. When I started the Flood Relief – Switchboard page it was to bring these two together; linking volunteers with services and resources to exactly where they were needed. This way we were able to ensure that emergency services, transport and relief items got to where they were needed most.”
Explaining how the youth were fiercely and fearlessly involved in the relief efforts she added, “they were in the forefront, volunteering during the disaster. It was mostly the youth who were on the ground, and this shows that the youth are most active and most responsive and can come together in large numbers to help during a crisis.”
It’s clear that the youth want to be involved in bringing about positive change; they have the energy, the enthusiasm, and the enterprise. It’s time we shed those biases of the youth being prone to violence and included them actively in grassroots level and policy level work. History does tend to repeat itself, but by channelling the energies of youth for positive change we might be able to stop the cycle of Youth-Centered violence that we have experienced over the years, and bring about lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
This article first appeared on the Daily Mirror: http://www.dailymirror.lk/115153/Channelling-Youth-Towards-Creating-Positive-Change#sthash.8BfiteWR.dpuf