Helping youth associated with gangs create a better future for themselves – and their communities

Report
from UN Children's Fund
Published on 03 Oct 2013 View Original

Poverty and unemployment leave youths in the Niger at risk of becoming involved with gangs known as 'palaces'. Moctar, 20, discusses his experiences as a palace member.

By Nathalie Prevost and Charlotte Arnaud

International Day of Non-Violence is 2 October.

UNICEF and partners are reaching out to the disoccupied youth in the poorest neighbourhoods of Zinder, the Niger, who are associated with violent gangs.

ZINDER, the Niger, 3 October 2013 – Moctar, 20, is an active member of a ‘palace’ in Zinder.

“The palaces are the name of the youth meeting points,” he explains, drinking tea. “If we had a job, we wouldn’t fight. But, because I am unemployed and without money, I easily get angry. If someone touches me, even if it’s my brother or an old man of the neighbourhood, I can easily get mad thinking they are being disrespectful. Then I can start a fight.

“Sometimes, we use knives,” he continues. “When we are being split up, everyone calls the member of his own palace. And then all palaces fight against each other’s. When the situation gets out of hand, we end up at the police station.”

Girls associated with gangs are at particular risk of experiencing physical or sexual abuse. Falmata*, 18, witnessed the mistreatment of girls when she spent time with members of a gang.

Palaces of Zinder

The palaces of Zinder, which is 1,000 km east of capital city Niamey, are, in fact, gangs of idle youth that are prone to violence. There are 320 such gangs in Zinder city. Each has 10 to 50 members. A study on these gangs was issued in 2012 with UNICEF support.

According to Aboubacar Souley, an independent researcher and author of the study, the causes of this violence are poverty and economic crisis, deficiency of the educational system and of youth policies – and a lack of parental responsibility. The palaces’ areas of influence are in the poorest neighbourhoods, particularly Kara Kara, a neighbourhood originally created to host people with disabilities and with leprosy.

“For every group, it’s the same routine,” writes Mr. Souley. “[T]he band lives mostly at night. The rules are made by the leader, which is named boss, president, shugaba. Every member has a nickname and solidarity is intense. Most of the time, the group has a headquarter: on the street, in somebody’s house or work place.”

According to the survey, most of those youth have lost contact with their family and have to provide for themselves. Simply finding daily meals is a problem for them. They are generally in trouble at school, and they use drugs and alcohol.

Girls associated with the palaces

Mr. Souley stresses that there are not many girls in palaces; 72 per cent of these groups are for men only. Girls associated with the gangs are generally the gang members’ girlfriends. Their situation is considered indecent, as the social norm in the Niger is that girls be married very young and stay at home.

Girls associated with the palaces face particular dangers.

Falmata*,18, was in a palace for two years. “I hung out with them because there is no job here. I sat down with the youth of the palace. I was preparing their meals. At night, we would wash up and go out in town. Girls who didn’t go out would go to their boyfriend’s room. Some of the girls would spend the night with them. Sometimes we would not come home before the morning,” she recalls.

“Some of the boys hit their girlfriends. The girls were ok with being hit. I was used to fighting. If I learned that my boyfriend was with another girl, I would find her to have a fight with her. If I could subdue her, I would hit her with my fist. Otherwise, I used weapons such as a razor blade.”

A way out

Some girls are exposed to palace violence as early as age 10. But, for these girls, there are not many other options. Access to education is extremely limited for girls in the Niger and varies considerably by region and by wealth – increasing their exposure to violence and abuse. And girls remain among the most exploited and vulnerable groups in West and Central Africa.

Falmata and her girlfriends in the palaces eventually parted ways, thanks to sensitization programmes supported by UNICEF and its partners. These programmes include associations that promote opportunities and strengthen equity. They work with youth and their families in Zinder, offering them counseling and training to facilitate their professional and community integration, for a better future.

*Name has been changed.