Steven was 14 years old when he embarked on a mission to end violence in his country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When he got to know Search years ago, he was inspired by the emphasis that we place on the youngest members of society as pioneers of peace.
Today, Steven is 27. He is part of the largest demographic in the DRC and the world, children and youth (by definition, children are between 0 and 13 years of age; youth are between 13 and 30). He knows that, even though they are generally regarded as agitators or victims, his peers actually have a key role to play in transforming violent conflict.
Steven wants to strengthen that role and help make his generation the one that will end violent conflict once and for all. That’s why he participated in our 3M Evaluation. Launched by the Global Partnership for Children and Youth in Peacebuilding and in partnership with Save the Children and World Vision, the evaluation’s goal is to define the contribution of youth to peace processes and develop strategies to improve upon it.
We created three evaluation teams in Goma, Bukavu, and Kitchanga. These cities are located in the conflict-heavy eastern region of the DRC, where communities fight over access to land and political power. Civilians in the area are often targets of armed militia and rebel groups. Widespread violence, recruitment, and instability directly threaten the livelihoods of children and youth there.
Young Congolese volunteers spearheaded the Evaluation. Not only did they interview more than 400 peacebuilders below the age of 30 to collect data about their work; they also organized many interactive, creative initiatives to teach their communities about peace, using art, storytelling, and focus groups. During one forum called “Peace and Violence: Choices and Change”, participants shared their experiences, feelings, and hopes through drawings, poems, and stories. They talked about sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination, and cohabitation. “I understand that my hands serve to write stories and draw about peace,” commented a 12-year-old girl from Goma attending the forum.
Steven was a proud member of the Goma team. He wanted to demonstrate how children and youth are powerful agents of change as well as essential actors in creating peace. Steven also noticed something that convinced him that he was on the right track. He observed that those who took part in participatory activities, raising awareness about conflict issues or supporting active citizenship in their communities, were very likely to continue their efforts after the end of these initiatives. “This is a sustainable approach in the long term, as children and youth take on important responsibilities today and for the future,” Steven remarked.
Prior to membership in a peacebuilding team, it was especially common for boys and girls to have no hope for a brighter future. They were disempowered and discouraged. The Evaluation showed them how they could contribute, turning many of them into engaged peacemakers. “I don’t beat other people anymore, now I beat the drum of peace,” said a 12-year-old boy. “Thanks to my contribution and that of my friends, we can see war is coming to an end. We will finally live in a stable country,” exclaimed an 11-year-old girl.
Another girl said, “The people in my community are often victims of discrimination. They suffer and feel a deep sense of injustice. Before, I could have sought revenge myself. The Evaluation allowed me to understand the great role we play as peacebuilders. Listening to others express their feelings in the focus groups made me take a step back from my own experience. Today, I keep my commitment to raise awareness among my peers and my family. I feel they start appreciating the importance of peace. My parents are proud of me and thankful.”
Steven himself went through a big transformation in his own life as a result of his work as an evaluator. He was nominated as Secretary General of the National Partnership of Children and Youth Peacebuilders, a new structure to increase cooperation between those groups that are working to empower youth to stop violent conflict in the Congo. In this role, he will liaise between organizations, government agencies and youth to develop innovative solutions to conflict at the national level.
He knows that peace is a process, a goal that must be pursued daily. For 13 years, he relentlessly worked towards it, with creativity, energy, and talent – and he will continue for decades to come. Hundreds of leaders like him are envisioning a future without violence for the DRC, striving everyday to build it in their neighborhoods. Thanks to the Evaluation, they are one step closer to achieving it.
Laurene Graziani is a volunteer at Search for Common Ground DRC.
Anne Salzman is a New Media Intern at Search for Common Ground.
Banner photo: Steven (left) leading a focus group in Goma.