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Understanding Youth Violence: Cases from Liberia and Sierra Leone

Authors: Rebosio, MichelleRomanova, Ekaterina;Corman, Crystal;

Executive Summary
Addressing youth issues is essential to promoting stability and preventing violence in fragile and conflict-affected states. However, there is little evidence that youth programming and policies have helped reduce violence in these settings. This could reflect the lack of understanding about youth issues and how problems affecting them encourage their participation in violence.
This study set out to understand youth violence in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries in which there has historically been a great deal of youth participation in group violence, where the risk of youth mobilization into violence persists, and where interpersonal and gender-based violence are still a concern. In addition to having young populations, both countries have governments that have emphasized improving youths’ lives by both reducing poverty and preventing violence. In turn, programming and policies in these (and many other conflict-affected) countries tend to be focused
on employment generation due to the assumption that youth become prone to violent behavior as the result of economic exclusion (their inability to achieve a stable source of livelihood). The study therefore tried to understand exclusion in these situations. Ultimately, the study hopes the findings will increase understanding of what causes youth violence while at the same time provide a wealth of information about youth issues that can be used to tailor broader youth programming and policies.

Several findings should be highlighted for policymakers and development practitioners:
1. “Youth” is not a term that defines a specific age group, but one that defines the status and role of a group of people. This clarifies why some groups of people over the official youth age ranges self-identify as youth and why some young people say they are adults or elders. Within the youth age range, Liberians and Sierra Leoneans point to different subcategories of youth, including older youth, younger youth, and idle youth.
2. “Idle” youth and youth over the age of 35 are viewed negatively and are often associated with violence and criminal behavior. It is important to note that an unemployed youth is not necessarily idle; the category of idle youth includes only those who have little or no responsibilities and are not perceived to be trying to make productive use of their time. The unemployed category is much broader, including those who work as daily, unskilled laborers, in agriculture, or who buy and sell goods. The category of youth over 35 can include those who are idle and in some cases members of minority groups, former combatants, or others who may have trouble earning status and respect
in their communities. Despite their age, idle youth and youth over 35 are rarely able to transition to adulthood, and are often permanently excluded from decision making at the community level.
3. Regardless of their age, those considered youth have limited access to decision making, but are expected to implement the decisions made by elders, especially when it comes to carrying out community works projects. This could be considered a form of exclusion. However, most youth believe their lack of involvement in decision making is justified; they see this as temporary and believe they will be involved once they acquire age, knowledge, experience, status, and effectively transition to being adults or elders.
4. Even though youth do not want to be part of decision making, their exclusion from decision-making forums results in perceptions of unfairness. Youth often complain that community leaders, elders, and other decision makers distribute resources unfairly. Although this may sometimes be caused by uneven allocation of resources, it could also be due to the lack of youth influence on decision making and the lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making forums. 

5. Youth define a job as such only when it provides a sustained and sufficient source of income to support a family; they perceive jobs to be resources that are available but unfairly allocated. In most cases, jobs that require unskilled physical labor are not counted as jobs; neither are petty trading or agriculture. Although youth appreciate the opportunity to earn income from these activities, they do not meet youths’ employment expectations. Youth therefore easily misunderstand promises made by governments and donors to provide employment for them. They
often believe that opportunities for long-term, stable income materialize for some, but they themselves have not had the chance to benefit because these opportunities are unfairly distributed.
6. Liberians and Sierra Leoneans believe they can respond violently to violence, and their definition of violence includes injustice and disrespect. Unfair decisions, inequitable resource distribution, disrespect, and not allowing someone to “save face” are regarded as forms of violence. It is considered acceptable to respond to one type of violence with another; for example, many stated that it is acceptable to respond to disrespect with beating. Similarly, riots are viewed as an acceptable response to the inequitable distribution of jobs; violence can also be justified in
response to corruption.
7. Violence is widely perceived as negative and harmful, yet sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is widespread and normalized. When asked what kind of violence is common or exists in their communities, over 86.6 percent of Sierra Leoneans and 44.9 percent of Liberians reported incidents of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, or rape. In these contexts, SGBV is not dominated by male violence against women, but includes violence by people of both sexes against people of both sexes. For example, a man’s two girlfriends may beat each other out of jealousy; a man may rape a young girl; a young woman may beat her boyfriend because of his inability to provide; or a man may assault his wife.

Recommendations for Youth-Focused Policies and Projects
Several policy recommendations follow from the study’s findings:
1. Remove the age-only definition of youth from youth policies and create targeted interventions for different groups within the cohort. The official youth age range is too broad and does not allow for proper targeting. Policymakers and development practitioners should therefore design interventions based on specific youth needs. These should focus specifically on older youth and idle youth if the objective is to reduce exclusion, and on idle youth if the objective is to reduce negative behaviors and potentially reduce violence.
2. Focus on improving communication between decision makers and youth to increase youth perceptions of justice. Efforts to include youth in decision-making forums are unlikely to work, since such public forums are not where important decisions are made. Increasing the accountability and transparency of decision making, however, is possible even if youth are not part of the decisions being made. It is possible, for example, for formal institutions to place a specific emphasis on communicating their decision-making outcomes, and the reasons for such decisions,
to youth. It is also possible to work with youth leaders at the community level so that they learn how to gather and represent youth opinions and how to advocate for youth in decision-making forums. Sensitizing elders and other decision makers about the need to communicate with and include youth can also help increase the transparency of community-level decisions. 

3. Reduce the emphasis of youth policies and projects on employment creation. At the same time, increase the focus on allowing youth to access a source of livelihood that gives them status, respect, and the ability to raise a family. Although youth in both countries demand employment, governments should emphasize to youth the kinds of jobs that can and cannot be created, and also expand the understanding of livelihood options for youth. Creating the kinds of jobs that youth demand is difficult; policies should instead focus on raising youths’ productivity and
increasing the reliability of their incomes. Youth livelihoods could be made more reliable by increasing the productivity of agriculture, supporting the addition of value to agricultural products, increasing access to finance, and working with micro-entrepreneurs to develop long-term business strategies. This could boost youths’ status, as communities recognize that youth are able to meet their obligations and raise their families.
4. Increase focus on SGBV issues. Policies should aim to better understand SGBV issues in order to address victims’ needs and reduce the probability that day-to-day disputes will turn violent.

Click here to Download full report 

Original Source: World Bank Rebosio, Michelle; Romanova, Ekaterina; Corman, Crystal; . 2013. Understanding youth violence : cases from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Washington DC ; World Bank Group. 

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