Positive experiences amidst negative peace

Written by Mariette Hägglund

Positive experiences amidst negative peace

For the past 4 months I have been working at the United Nations Population Fund’s East and Southern Africa regional office (UNFPA ESARO) in Johannesburg, South Africa as a master’s trainee. Although the connection between the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency and my Master’s Degree Programme in Peace, Mediation and Conflict studies at the University of Tampere might at first glance seem unclear, my experience here has proven relevant and useful in so many ways both at work and outside of it.The past Sunday, December 16th, marked the Day of Reconciliation in South Africa, 24 years after the end of apartheid. Although the country is often seen as a champion for reconciling with its past, living in Johannesburg has given me the chance to observe and discuss the status quo with local and international people alike, giving another more dire picture of reality. Ironically, and perhaps expectedly, a few months here has proven that the South African society is characterized by severe inequalities and frustrations, which could perhaps be seen as structural violence — a concept coined by the prominent scholar in peace studies, Johan Galtung, whose theories we got very familiar with in our studies.South Africa is the world’s most unequal country (OECD 2017). 57 people are murdered every single day in the country (SAPS 2018), almost on par with the death rates in some war zones (BusinessTech 2018). Social justice is ineffective with issues around underreporting of crimes and lack of transparency and accountability. Education levels remain low and unequal (OECD 2016). Corruption is highly prevalent (Transparency International 2017) and the political situation has been tumultuous in the last few years with corruption allegations and the ousting of president Jacob Zuma. Racism and discrimination flourishes. A reconciled South Africa seems like an illusion.Without diving deeper into these issues and instead looking beyond the interesting everyday life here, the work I have been doing in the Youth team has given me new perspectives and insights not only to my studies in peace and conflict but also to the work of the UNFPA and UN more broadly. I’ve familiarized myself with the dynamics between country offices, regional offices and headquarters, and cooperation with ministries, development agencies and civil society. Thematically, I have mostly been focusing on a variety of issues that are related to youth, who in recent years have increasingly been acknowledged as important actors in maintaining and building peace.

Young people’s vulnerabilities and resilience

The role of youth in building sustainable societies and peace as aligned with Agenda 2030 was recognized through the Resolution 2250 “Youth, Peace and Security” and the follow-up resolution 2419 “Role of Youth in Negotiating, Implementing Peace Agreements“, adopted by the Security Council in 2015 and 2018 respectively. They were the first resolutions of their kind to solely focus on youth. The hope with Resolution 2250 is that it will lead to an increased involvement and advocacy for youth involvement in peacebuilding efforts and recognize them as legitimate actors following the steps of the landmark resolution 1325 “Women, Peace and Security”. The Independent Progress Study “The Missing Peace” on Youth, Peace and Security led by the UNFPA is a major study on the contribution of youth in peacebuilding and conflict resolution that has further established youth as a part of peace and security. It recognizes youth engagement within five major themes: i) participation, ii) protection, iii) prevention, iv) partnership, and v) disengagement and reintegration (Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security 2018, p.2).Considering that youth often are at the forefront of conflicts but also are resilient in fragile circumstances, one cannot ignore the importance of including them in the emergency preparation, response and recovery as well as long-term peacebuilding. However, youth face several barriers for participation, and especially young women face not only challenges because of their age but also because of their gender. In a region characterized by a young population, with many of the East and Southern African countries having up to 40% of the population around the age of 10-24 years (ICGLR 2014), the involvement of young people cannot be overlooked. Simultaneously, many of the countries, particularly in the Great Lakes region and Horn of Africa, are categorized as fragile or extremely fragile countries (OECD 2018), some of which have been marred by violent conflicts for years. The high levels of violence in conflict and non-conflict affected countries combined with the absence of government and rule of law have led to increased numbers of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). In fact, sexual violence against adolescent girls and young women has been reported in all 51 conflict affected countries since 1986 (Women’s Refugee Commission 2015).

Young people and sexual and gender-based violence

The issue around sexual and gender-based violence in conflicts was also highlighted with the Nobel peace prize, which was awarded to the Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege and Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, both of whom have been vocal about sexual violence in conflict. Conflicts consequently lead to a breakdown of healthcare systems, putting especially women and girls not only at risk for SGBV, but also child marriages, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which are exacerbated particularly in societies where access to healthcare is already limited due to social norms, restrictive laws and weak healthcare systems (UNFPA 2012).For example, 18-40% of the women and girls and 4-24% of men and boys are estimated to have been subjected to sexual violence in DRC. Child marriage is most prevalent in countries considered fragile or conflict affected (OECD 2012; UNFPA 2012). Before the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the average age for marriage for a girl was between 20 and 25 years, but during and following the genocide the average for marriage was 15 years in refugee camps (Women’s Refugee Commission 2014). The list goes on. In order to address the issues of young people in fragile settings and their vulnerability to exploitation and violence, we at UNFPA organized a pilot training on “Young people in humanitarian contexts and peacebuilding”. The training highlighted the need for involving young people in all phases of emergency response and peacebuilding as well as addressing programmatic and policy interventions that should be undertaken. It specifically focused on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people in humanitarian settings, including the increased risks of child marriage, sexual and gender based violence, early and unintended pregnancies and the vulnerabilities of unaccompanied minors. The other major focus was youth, peace and security, based on Resolution 2250 and the Progress Study, with a focus on concepts of peace, peacebuilding and merging the humanitarian-peacebuilding nexus with young people not only as right holders but also as duty bearers.

Among other tasks during this training, I facilitated the session on gender-based violence in humanitarian settings through a case study of a refugee camp. The case study was used to portray what threats young people, and particularly young women and girls are facing in humanitarian settings, and how to respond to these kind of risks by implementing the minimum initial service package (MISP) and at a later stage of the crisis moving on to a more comprehensive response (based on UNFPA 2009). When talking about youth and planning policy or programmatic interventions, it is however important to acknowledge youth as a heterogeneous group with various backgrounds and positionalities. In conflicts, young women and men are often seen in binary categories as either “perpetrators” or “victims/survivors”, with young men overwhelmingly as the perpetrators, although reality is much more complex than that with for example many men being survivors of sexual violence as well (Feron 2018). Statistically young men are still the overwhelming majority of “perpetrators of violence”, but simultaneously they also account for 90% of the casualties in conflicts (UNFPA 2015). Notably, at UNFPA there are projects focusing on men and boys involvement and there is increased recognition of the need for direct programming for them instead of seeing them as secondary beneficiaries of implemented projects. No matter the issue, recognizing the various positionalities within the group of “young people”, whether as peace activists, military commanders, students, or anything beyond and between, they should be capacitated and included. Luckily there has been a shift away from a “one size fits all” approach to more inclusive and contextualized approaches both in critical debates on peace and the international community. People affected by a conflict should be involved in resolving the conflict. Leaving out 40% from the negotiation table, emergency response or programmatic consultation is not sustainable.


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Feron, E. (2018). Wartime Sexual Violence against Men: Masculinities and Power in Conflict Zones

ICGLR Research Reports Nos. 1 and 2: “Youth Unemployment in Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo,” Lusaka, 2014, “Youth Unemployment in Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia” Lusaka, 2014

Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security 2018 https://www.youth4peace.info/system/files/2018-10/youth-web-english.pdf

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OECD (2017). Income Inequality. https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm

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UNDP 2016, p.17) Practice Note: Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding, p.17, http://goo.gl/qUHqEc

UNFPA (2009). Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/UNFPA_ASRHtoolkit_english.pdf

UNFPA 2012. http://bit.ly/1GyXqCM]  

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UNFPA 2015. Minimum Initial Service Package(MISP)https://www.unfpa.org/resources/what-minimum-initial-service-package

Transparency International (2017). South Africa. Retrieved from: https://www.transparency.org/country/ZAF

Women’s Refugee Commission (2014). Strong Girls, Powerful Women: Program Planning and Design for Adolescent Girls in Humanitarian Settings