African youth: finding solutions to their own problems

On 1 December 2010, as part of the International Year of Youth, the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa held a panel discussion on youth and the future of Africa. Seated amidst ambassadors and officials, four young people talked about the challenges and opportunities they face. In this exclusive for Africa Renewal, Liz Scaffidi spoke briefly with each.

Grace Akallo, former child soldier from Uganda Grace Akallo, former child soldier from Uganda.

‘Employment issues are critical’

Grace Akallo, now 31 years old, a former child soldier from Uganda.

What is it like for a former child soldier?

Being a child soldier is the worst thing that could happen to any young person. Not only does it destroy childhood, but what’s worse, it destroys the future. Abducted when they are supposed to be in school, instead of learning math, they are forced to learn how to shoot an AK-47. They are forced to become killers or rapists. When, and if, they eventually return, they are left to deal with their guilt in a society that does not accept them. Personally, I was one of the lucky ones. While I escaped after seven cruel months, many of my friends did not. Some were killed. Others suffered from sexual abuse that resulted in unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDS. Their experience is beyond suffering, it is more a life of condemnation.

What about jobs?

Employment issues facing youth in conflict and post-conflict situations are critical. The 6,600 former child soldiers comprise a population with no education, no skills and stigmatized by their own society. They cannot just walk down the street looking for a job. If not addressed, this can escalate to a security problem. Youth may join existing armies or even start one. Additionally, the frustration they experience in being unemployed and not able to support themselves and their families perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty and the torment that goes along with it.

How did you manage to escape from this?

I was lucky that Sister Rachelle, a nun who ran the school from which I was abducted, followed the rebels into the bush and rescued 109 out of 139 students. She also made sure that every girl who escaped returned to school without having to pay any fees. That is how I finish my secondary education at St. Mary’s College in Aboke. I later made it to Uganda Christian University and then transferred to Gordon College, in Massachusetts. I recently graduated with a master’s degree in international development and social change from Clark University. I am not employed yet, but am fortunate to have the potential for a productive future.

I believe that any young people who have gone through a conflict or post-conflict situation deserve an opportunity to be educated, a chance to acquire skills. It is their only means to survive. Today’s young people are the future. What will be the destiny of Africa if so many of its youth have been destroyed, left out or neglected?

‘We are the ones affected’

Jonathan Bashi RudahindwaJonathan Bashi Rudahindwa

Jonathan Bashi Rudahindwa, a 24-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

You’ve spoken of your ordeal in Congo’s 1996 war and how you and your family later fled to safety. You’re now a Fulbright Scholar, pursuing a master’s degree in law. How did your experience affect your career choice?

In Congo, I saw soldiers shooting, killing people in front of me. I lost family and friends. Today, I can’t help being filled with fear when I hear detonations or see someone in a military uniform. In 1998, at the start of the second war, I was lucky to move to the capital [Kinshasa], which was not affected. For 11 years I studied there and got an education. I chose law, to try to defend those who were not as lucky as me, who are still affected by armed conflicts and of the worst human rights violations.

How can youth be protected?

While I admire the work of the UN and of some NGOs, I strongly believe that the solution must come from the African youth themselves. We are the ones being killed and raped, the ones recruited and traumatized. We are the ones affected. We should be the ones to find a solution.

My suggestion is to begin with raising awareness. In college, we organized conferences on a Congolese dialogue to end the war and on our new constitution. We also created a moot court competition and used it to inform people on topics such as human rights violations, our new law on sexual violence and child abuse. If we can articulate how we are affected and by whom, our partners like the UN will be in a better position to help us.

‘Bring the elephant out of the closet’

Avril RuaAvril Rua

Twenty-five year-old lawyer Avril Rua of Kenya gave a presentation on the impact of HIV/AIDS on youth in Africa.

As a lawyer combating HIV/AIDS, do you see legislation as the solution to the pandemic?

Throughout my education I have studied HIV/AIDS. Young people who are not educated are still unclear on many issues surrounding the disease. Kenyan girls aged 15 to 19 are three times more at risk than boys. On top of that, HIV carries a stigma that keeps people silent. If everyone is afraid to talk about HIV, how can policy makers implement laws? Of course legislation is important, but removing the stigma is the key, bringing the elephant out of the closet.

How does HIV/AIDS relate to human rights?

Africa has adopted the global trend to criminalize HIV-infected individuals. Many people do not have the capacity to undergo testing, so they remain in the dark about their HIV status. Because the criminalization laws are phrased so broadly, innocent persons may be liable.

Under Kenya’s HIV Act, a pregnant woman may be held culpable for transmitting the virus to her newborn. The broad language, the lack of definitive and clear meanings of prohibited behavior and the failure to improve access to information and testing all create the potential for human rights abuses. Legislation, as such, may result in negatively impacting HIV-positive persons. At the same time, it is important to have legislation in place through which people can be held accountable. Legislation is only effective if it is coupled with human rights principles, and policy is only efficient if implementation starts from the grassroots.

‘Poverty is the main obstacle to education’

Plapa KoukpamouPlapa Koukpamou

Plapa Koukpamou, a 34 year-old from Togo, was a youth representative to the General Assembly.

Why do you feel it is so important to get your message across at the UN?

I think the UN and African governments need to collaborate in putting in place policies to improve education. To the detriment of their people, leaders seem to be more self-involved than concerned with the welfare of their citizens. Africa is not poor, yet poverty is the main obstacle to education.

My middle- and high-school years were spent in classrooms with no less than 80 students. When I entered Lomé University in Togo, there were more than 500 students in each of my classes, with one professor. Corruption and lack of vision must be replaced with prioritizing resources and managing them better. Africa does not need monetary aid. We need our governments to implement educational policies that coincide with our countries’ realities. Outside assistance is also needed, but in the form of human resources, like expertise.

—Africa Renewal online