Dear Mrs. Gamba,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me first thank Mrs. Gamba for her leadership as Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict. This meeting of the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers marks a significant step toward better addressing the needs of children and youths affected by conflict. It was an honor that Mrs. Gamba invited me to take part of the Steering Committee for this campaign and to request that my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), be represented on its expert Advisory Group.
My work with young people from fragile communities started with the former child soldiers I met in northern Uganda while I was filming The Last King of Scotland. This was a defining experience for me. First, when I learned about their experiences, I was struck by the similarities between them and so many of the youths I had seen be consumed by gang violence during my adolescence in Los Angeles. I realized that there is something universal in the trauma experienced by young people affected by violence in their childhoods or formative years.
However, the second thing I noticed in these young people was the glimmer of hope that was still in their eyes. Despite whatever they had experienced, there was still possibility – possibility that needed to be nurtured. So many have told me they did not want to be treated as victims – they want the chance to change their own lives. In 2012, I created WPDI to do exactly that: empower young women and men from fragile communities to become leaders who can make a difference in their environments as peacemakers and entrepreneurs. Today, our programs have affected 300,000 people directly and, indirectly, we have possibly affected more than 1,000,000 people in local and remote communities.
We should not consider young people with that kind of potential as problems but, rather, as solutions. I think we should also consider them as doers, as partners in the creation of positive change.
Many of the youth I work with have experienced conflict in the most direct manner as child soldiers. Many of them have lost siblings and parents to conflict and armed violence. Often, when conflict erupts, children and youths may have no alternative but to be victims or perpetrators. But these youths refuse to be trapped in that cycle.
Benson, a 23 year-old Ugandan told us his story when he joined our program in 2017. He was a child soldier during the civil war that tore apart northern Uganda. His parents were killed. His home was burned down. And he was abducted. At seven. He stayed for two years within the ranks of the LRA – the Lord Resistance Army – and escaped during the Barlonyo Massacre in Lira district where more than 200 civilians were killed. For many years, he had to live with the trauma of life within the most violent group in recent history.
Benson told us that joining the ranks of WPDI was a transformative experience; that being trusted with the mission of promoting peace and reconciliation made him realize that – these are his words – “there is life after war. With these skills I had the privilege of becoming a youth of influence in the community”.
The message I took from him is that there is an immense energy to be unlocked from children and youths in general and, in particular, from those who have suffered from conflict – including child soldiers. Even as their experiences can be the most traumatic a child can go through, they have capacity for resilience that we must nurture for the good of society at large.
Another of our peacemakers is Auma. She was abducted at age 10 and turned into the slave of a commander in her unit. This did not prevent her from becoming a local leader and, now, with our support, she wants to become a teacher. Auma’s story and aspiration tell us that the best way to reintegrate them in a sustainable way is to empower them.
This is something that I have also witnessed directly through our core program in South Sudan, the Youth Peacemaker Network (YPN). The YPN is a youth empowerment initiative through which we equip young people with tools and skills that they can use to build peace in their communities.
The first pillar of this program is to build a grassroots peace force on the ground. We select core groups of young women and men who have been affected by violence and conflict and whom we train intensely for a year in transformative peacebuilding, leadership, information and communications technology, and business and entrepreneurship skills. Education is a foundational dimension of the solutions. Our work with them extends to life skills, psychosocial support and trauma healing. This is central. We want to provide them with more than knowledge; we want them to connect with themselves, to have a strong sense of their identity. This is a condition for connecting with others. This is even more important for former child soldiers. Reintegration verges on the impossible if they are not reconnected with themselves first. Former child soldiers we work with tell us that our focus on trauma healing and life skills has been transformative and helped them shape their personal journey.
But the training is just one part of the journey. Once they finish their preparation, the peacemakers go into their communities where they, in turn, train another larger group of local youths with whom they work to develop peace initiatives and income-generating projects. Today, we have 338 such peacemakers active in the whole Equatorias region of South Sudan. They work at the grassroots level in collaboration with local leaders and influencers and local authorities to ensure the buy-in of the communities.
Together, they achieve concrete results. In 2018, our youth leaders from the former Eastern Equatoria State reached 4,000 people by conducting community dialogues that aimed to solve local conflicts or raise awareness about the ongoing peace process. They participated in radio talk shows, reaching an additional 50,000 people. One of the youth leaders after our training has become a member of his state’s parliament. They have also developed small businesses, through which they are building up the local economy and hiring other local youths.
A second pillar of the YPN is our network of 11 Community Learning Centers in remote areas where we teach our certified curriculum in peacebuilding, ICT and business and provide access to computers reaching out to and building the capacity of the most vulnerable and at-risk youth. In 2018, we had 118,000 visitors of which 20,000 took courses. We conducted surveys among former trainees at these centers and more than 70 percent of respondents had either found a job, obtained a raise, or created their own business. We have also started incubating businesses designed and managed by young people through this network, which will only amplify their impact.
Fostering entrepreneurship and economic opportunities has become an intrinsic aspect of how we conceive and implement peacebuilding. Having concrete skills, a job or one’s business is empowering. It brings self-confidence; it comes with a set of ethics for work as the sustainable way to maintain one’s livelihood. It avoids creating a generation of soldiers in the waiting.
It was very telling, in my view, that one of the first businesses we supported came from the request of Simon, a former child soldier who has lost part of his hearing capacity to the roar of machine guns. Simon came into our program to become a community builder, a peacemaker. But he let us know that he had his personal view on that: his idea was to set up an electronics store that would double as a vocational center for local youth. He had benefited from our vocational training and saw this as a way for him to continue to do his part in nurturing his community. A fellow peacemaker of his, Cissy, did the same: she asked us to help her set up a hair salon that would double as a vocational center for local girls. Both of them have seen success in their businesses and they helped transform the lives of hundreds of vulnerable youth.
We have learned from them and entrepreneurship is now mainstreamed in our model. We currently support 49 businesses designed and managed by young people in Mexico, South Sudan and Uganda. In Uganda, for example, we are now supporting 19 businesses designed and operated by 285 refugee women in the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement. Over the next five years, we hope to support more than 150 businesses. This is a demonstration that education and vocational training can be key to youth empowerment and, in particular, sustainable reintegration.
This is a demonstration also that programs for youth empowerment and reintegration must rest on long-term investments if they are to succeed. It takes time and resources. All our programs are 5-years long. Channeling the necessary resources to the ground is clearly where the main challenge lies. This is one main observation of this committee, that services are not aligned with the needs of former child soldiers. We are falling short.
The success of our programs has taught me the value of long-term engagement. The issue of child reintegration should not be seen as just a humanitarian gesture to help vulnerable groups of children move on. It must be seen a sustainable and strategic investment in the reconstruction of societies.
With this in mind, I believe that we need a concerted approach to gather momentum behind efforts at child reintegration. The approach proposed by Mrs. Gamba is right in how it urges every actor, and States in particular, to Share, Champion, and Give.
Share your experiences.
Champion the issues.
Give what you can be it money or political support.
Your role is extremely important because, in the end, the most important aspect for successful child reintegration is probably the need for them to feel a sense of belonging to a community where they can develop socially, economically, and culturally; in other words, a place where they can become the people they wish to be.