Why We Must Understand What Drives Young People to Violence

This generation’s youths are not the problem but the solution—and to find it, we must listen to them.

Members of a Kenyan youth group formed a dance troupe to earn income by performing at events and teaching Zumba classes. (Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps)

Oct 26, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Karen Scriven is Mercy Corps’ senior director of youth, gender and girls. She has more than 20 years of experience in program design and management.

The recent film Beasts of No Nation takes viewers to a place that is unimaginable for most of us—a world where families and communities are wiped away in a barrage of gunfire and armies of children inflict unspeakable violence. But Agu, the film’s protagonist, and his fellow child soldiers illustrate just one aspect of a stark reality: By force or by choice, millions of young people—from Africa to the Middle East to Latin America—are caught in the crossfire of violent conflict.

The forced recruitment of child soldiers is just one way young people are involved in conflict across the globe. Right now, girls are being forced into sexual slavery in Syria. Thirteen-year-olds are being used as suicide bombers in Nigeria. And teenagers are actively choosing to join the ranks of groups such as al-Shabaab or ISIS. The current population of youths—1.8 billion, the largest in human history—is coming of age in places such as Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, where life is in a constant state of disruption and turmoil.

But we can’t find a solution to this global crisis unless we understand the nature of the problem and then tackle it at its core. While many young people like Agu are forced into violence, others make a deliberate choice. By understanding what’s driving this choice, we can work to break the cycle of violence in which many young people are trapped.

To know why some youths join conflict, we have to ask them, and then listen. Mercy Corps asked this very question of some of the youths we’re working with in more than 40 countries around the world. We found that in many fragile environments, such as Afghanistan or Somalia, young people are driven to take up arms by frustrations over feelings of injustice. These feelings of being wronged or treated unfairly stem from experiencing discrimination, corruption, and abuse—by police, elected representatives, and others—that go unaddressed by their government. These youths are angry after suffering through unfair treatment such as being arrested for participating in peaceful demonstrations. A young Somali man who was harassed by local officials and wrongfully imprisoned by police told us, “I’ve had to tolerate everything…but if you try to do anything, they’ll make it worse for you. So you have to hide your anger.”

The search to right injustice can also take the form of vengeance. In Colombia, a fifth grader named Adriana Loiza sought out the local commander of an insurgency group after an opposing armed group killed her parents. Loiza wanted revenge. Now in her early 20s (she was captured just shy of her 18th birthday by the Colombian army), she says, “When I think about who I was then, it’s hard to believe. It’s like I was a different person. I was so young. I cared only about fighting.”

Adriana Loiza joined the National Liberation Army, one of Colombia’s strongest rebel groups, when she was just 11 years old. (Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps)

While some might assume that high unemployment rates drive youths to engage in violent activity because they are angry at the lack of options to earn a living, we’ve actually found that having a job has little or no impact on whether a young person will engage in conflict. A young Somali woman told us, “Often you will hear people say joblessness is the biggest problem for the youth. And unemployment is a major problem, but underneath that is hopelessness and a belief that there is no fairness.”

While some choose violence and others fall victim to it, this generation of young people is not the problem. They are part of the solution. To find it, we first must listen to them—hear their grievances, frustrations, and hopes. We can’t make assumptions around why they take up arms. And while reintegration of former youth combatants and protection for those vulnerable to falling prey to violence are crucial, it simply isn’t enough to address the symptoms of violence. We must suffocate it at its roots.

After listening to young people and understanding what might drive some to violence, we work directly with youths to design programs that address the underlying causes they’ve identified. In Kenya, which suffered devastating postelection violence in 2007 perpetrated largely by young people, we’ve helped youths form new partnerships with the communities, governments, and institutions that previously alienated and marginalized them. They now see their role as building their country, not destroying it.

Around the world, youths are rising up to demand change and pathways to peace and opportunity. They seek justice, safety, and an end to violence, as well as the empowerment to decide their own fate. At Mercy Corps, we see this when talking to Syrian refugee girls living in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere. They don’t want to marry early—today, minors account for one in five marriages among female Syrian refugees—where they may encounter domestic violence and risky childbirth. They have ambitions to go to school to become doctors and teachers. These youths represent a powerful source of hope, determination, and resilience and can drive lasting, positive change.

A generation of young people is on the verge of becoming the adults who will either help solve the conflicts and crises plaguing our world or continue to fuel them. The actions and choices they make will have an enormous ripple effect on stability across the globe. Their role is critical, and so is ours. As a global community, we have a critical window of time and an unprecedented opportunity to empower a generation who will decide today the fate of our world tomorrow.

This article was created in partnership with TakeParts parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.