For many people, peace is the absence of war, but, is it really?
I was born in Mombasa, Kenya. Depending on what you like to read, you will either know Mombasa for its beautiful beaches, warm weather, food culture and hospitable people. Or you may know it for unresolved historical injustices, secession plans led by Mombasa Republican Council, juvenile gangs that have terrorized residents for close to five years now if not more and increasing violent extremism. Or you may know it for its black magic. I digress.
Although Mombasa has not experienced war or a major conflict in the recent years, it has experienced the terror of gangs armed with crude and sharp weapons. Criminal gangs are not new in Mombasa. For as long as I can remember there have been incidences of crime in Mombasa. But why is it rampant and even more devastating? Why are criminal gangs now formed and manned by teenagers and children?
For the past three years, I have worked with young women and men who have experienced violence directly or indirectly. In seeking understanding and clarity of the root causes to violence, I have talked to young men in gangs, victims of gang violence, parents who have lost their children through violence as victims and perpetrators. The most common reasons as to why more young people were joining gangs were unemployment, poverty and seeking justice for injustices committed to them. Many saw gangs as opportunities to earn an income and fend for themselves and their families, with an income they felt more dignified. They felt respected and valued which meant that they were least likely to have their rights violated.
Vulnerability that drives young people into violence stems from an overwhelming desire to be heard and seen. To be powerful and to be in charge. Power can come in different forms: through making decisions, freedom and choice, money and even an opportunity to lead. Even though I grew up in a financially disadvantaged background, struggled with unemployment and was very frustrated by my country’s injustices especially corruption, I have never even once contemplated joining a gang. I am not special, just fortunate to have found my power before my vulnerabilities took over my life. I have found power in leadership and service to humanity. When I train a class of young leaders on human rights, I feel fulfilled. I feel like I am taking charge of my present and future. It is not surprising that the same fulfillment I get is the same as that of a young woman in a gang. Look at it this way, victims of violence are usually at the mercy of perpetrators. The perpetrator decides what to do, how to do it and whether or not they deserve a chance to live. That is power. In my case, my insecurities and vulnerabilities are under the mercy of my consciousness and self-awareness. I decide what to do with them, how to face them and whether or not they deserve space in my life. I have learnt how to transform that power into influencing people towards change in my local communities. Through UNDP’s 16x16 initiative, I now have an opportunity along with 15 other leaders to influence global and national leaders and participate in formal and informal policy making processes such as the Rome Call-to-Action. I am using my power to represent the voices of my communities and speaking on their behalf to decision makers. To ensure that policies are implemented, institutions are held accountable and the rule of law is upheld.
Through my initiative Kauli Zetu Mtaani, which seeks to include voices of young people from informal spaces in discussions on social justice and development, my biggest lesson was that young people already have the power, hence, the word empowerment to me makes little sense now. To empower is to give power to someone to do something, but how can you give what is already there. Perhaps we need to move from giving power to harnessing that power. In fact what we should be talking about, is how to transform the power of young people into addressing today’s global challenges and attaining sustainable development goals by the year 2030.
Indeed, there is no war in Mombasa, but we do not have peace. We live in fear of being attacked on our way homes by gangs. And we fear physical harassment in the hands of those that have been mandated to protect us; the police. We fear that we may not have an actual future because of the dying economy. I know that it is not just the people of Mombasa, this is a reality for many young people in different parts of the world. Even in a system that is constantly excluding us, there is hope and opportunity through the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 (2015) and 2419 (2018) adopted by the UN Member States. The resolution acknowledges the important role young people play in promoting international peace and security. It also identifies key pillars for action that is participation, protection, prevention, partnerships and disengagement and reintegration. All it takes now is for member states to commit to implementing the resolution across all levels.
Achieving peaceful, just and inclusive societies is not simple but it is also not rocket science. We need to ensure that young people are allowed to be young, to have and share their voices and opinions even when they are different. Young people should be allowed to be free to enjoy their fundamental rights. Most importantly, young people should be protected, included and involved meaningfully to ensure that our power is transformed and used appropriately to contribute to development. It is not about controlling our power but allowing us to use it to enhance the quality of life that we live. History will judge us harshly if our creativity and innovation, the ideas that drive us and the immense passion we have to change this world will not have been fully utilized to achieve sustainable development.