Listening to youth: The experiences of young people in northern Uganda - Sep 2007


Executive Summary

As Uganda moves forward in an uncertain peace process and faces the challenges of rebuilding, young people will play a key role in shaping their country's future. As the international community strives to better understand, support and uphold the rights of youth affected by armed conflict, young people's voices, opinions and recommendations are a necessary and critical resource.

In many ways, young people1 in northern Uganda have been the group most deeply affected by the brutal two-decade conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda. Hundreds of thousands of young people have seen their communities attacked and destroyed, have lost parents and relatives to violence and disease, have been separated from their families and displaced from their homes.Thousands of young men and women have been abducted by the LRA and forced to participate in violence, or serve as porters, cooks and sex slaves, resulting in many young women becoming mothers at a young age.

As a result of the conflict and ensuing poverty, the vast majority of youth have missed out on opportunities to go to school. Young women and men identify education as their priority concern and the solution to the many challenges they face.The lack of opportunities to earn an income to support themselves and their families, which often results in sexual abuse and exploitation, is also a priority concern. Health is a major concern, including the spread of HIV/AIDS, and in particular the lack of facilities and distance to health clinics, which are not considered "youth-friendly."

The current peace process between the LRA and Government of Uganda has led to increased security in the region. Of particular relevance to young people is the dramatic reduction of abductions by the LRA."Night commuting" from camps to town centers has all but ceased. Formerly abducted young people who are participating in programs to support their reintegration into families and communities appear to be adjusting well.

However, along with these improvements have come new risks for young people. Children are increasingly being left alone in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps so they can continue to access services, while older family members return home to prepare land. This leaves children and youth vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.Young people and their families may face challenges in acquiring or reclaiming land. Meanwhile, the possible transition from relief to development may precipitate a drop in international funding at a critical moment for peace and development.

Young people demonstrate extraordinary resilience and employ a number of strategies to survive. Forming and belonging to youth groups addresses multiple needs, including companionship and support, the opportunity to develop new skills and address community problems.Young people preserve their cultural heritage by learning and performing traditional music, dance and drama.These activities are also used as vehicles to raise awareness and address challenges such as HIV/AIDS prevention and conflict resolution.

Young people demonstrated an awareness of the peace talks between the LRA and the Government of Uganda but said that they have had little opportunity to participate in the process. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), UN and government agencies appear to recognize and value the importance of youth participation. However, while young people are participating in activities, their role in decision-making is less clear.Youth organizations appear to be the most prevalent form of participation; however, most organizations lack adequate funding and capacity for innovative programming.