Participation and access to education and vocational training top the agenda as Youth Envoy visits displaced Juba youth
As we arrive at the Youth Training Centre in the UN protection site for displaced people, several young men and women are busy getting on with learning new and useful skills.
Some are successfully mastering sewing machines. A group of giggling women are practicing hairdressing and the use of hair extensions on a row of doll heads. A few are staring into the mysteries hidden on and behind the bluish light emanating from some old but functional computers.
The key word, it seems, is “few”. It sums up one of the biggest problems facing the youth, not only in the protection site of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, but across the country.
Despite doing its level best, the Women Advancement Organisation, financed by the UN Children’s Fund, Unicef, can only train a tiny minority of thousands of youth in desperate need of employable, income-generating know-how.
“We need more trainings teaching us useful skills. This is very important for people like me, who dropped out of school because I couldn’t pay my fees,” says 22-year-old Alice Kiden Juma, a single mother of two who has spent roughly a third of her life in the protection site.
She has been lucky and given the opportunity to complete a three-month-long tailoring course, and has also dabbled a bit in handicrafts, learning how to make bags. She hopes for stable peace to arrive and dares to dream of making a decent life once it does.
“When peace is here to stay, I will move back to my house where I was living before. I will be free and happy, and if someone could help me buy or borrow a sewing machine, I would like to open my own business to provide for myself and my children,” she says.
While preparing herself for a self-sustainable life is her immediate priority, she mentions, matter-of-factly, other challenges in the day-to-day lives of the youth in general and young women in particular. Healthcare – “if you are suffering from malaria, they will give you a Panadol [generic painkiller]” – being widows or widowers with nobody providing for them, and the ever-present risk of sexual or other violence.
“Some women go outside [of the protection site] and men will go to rape them. Most of them [perpetrators] are from outside, so they are not caught. They go free,” she laments.
She is heard by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Youth Envoy, currently spending a week in South Sudan.
“I’m here to listen to you, and to bring your concerns to your political leaders. One of my objectives of my visit is to advocate with the government, with the opposition and all our partners to include young people in the implementation of the peace agreement to the development of [youth-related] national policies and programmes, and to actually implement them,” she tells the crowd in front of her.
The comments made by the attending younglings keep coming back to two topics: universal access to free education and vocational trainings, and to increase their participation in decision making on issues directly affecting the 72 per cent of the population who are below the age of 30.
Strikingly, many speakers refer to school and other courses as ways for traumatized youth to “forget” about the thoughts that haunt them, to heal and move on, and to combat sheer idleness and the resulting boredom that tends to lead many a young person down the wrong paths.
“At least promote the access to education,” pleads Makurar Joch, a representative of the youth in the protection site. “If you do that, the youth will be absent from all crises, because the youth are the ones making them [the “crises”] happen, stealing property, killing people. But if you engage them, they will think of better things for their future.”
Others air their frustration at not being listened to, nationally and abroad. Ms. Wickramanayake concedes that they are partially right.
“I recognise that there is a lack of a structural base where young people can be a part of decision making and representation from the bottom up. We are trying to develop an architecture in South Sudan, like a youth council, where diverse voices of the young can be hard, not only at the national level but also regionally and globally,” she said.
The Envoy added that South Sudanese youth are in fact represented in several international bodies, like the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board to the Security Council on Youth, Peace and Security, before rounding off her visit with perhaps the most important message of all:
“I hope that peace prevails in South Sudan and that all of you, young people, will be seen as actors of peace and prosperity and not as actors of war.”