International Youth Day 2009: Youth-led Organizations in Uganda Shape the Future of their Communities


International Youth Day 2009: Youth-led Organizations in Uganda Shape the Future of their Communities

August 12, 2009

In celebration of International Youth Day, AJWS applauds its youth-focused and youth-led grantees for empowering young people in villages around the world. Here we highlight two of AJWS's Ugandan partners that have responded to the acute needs of conflict-affected and displaced youth. By promoting sustainable livelihoods and fostering youth participation in community development, Gulu Youth for Action and Concerned Children and Youth Association exemplify what it means to be the "energizers of today and the holders of tomorrow."

It is so often said that the future lies in the hands of our children that the statement has become a platitude. But in northern Uganda, a region still healing from the ravages of a civil war and where over 50 percent of the population is under 18 years old, that axiom has taken on new meaning and urgency.

During the 20-year conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan military, 1.8 million people were uprooted from their homes and forced to live in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Tens of thousands of citizens were kidnapped or killed. LRA rebels have perpetrated countless crimes against the civilians in northern Uganda including torture and mutilation, rape, forced enlistment—particularly of children and youth—and murder. Meanwhile, the Ugandan troops charged with the responsibility of restoring order to the northern region also committed abuses against the people living in the camps. The soldiers were known to engage in sexual violence, arbitrarily arrest and assault civilians, and exact draconian punishment for transgressions as minor as curfew violation.

The tally of offenses in northern Uganda amounts to one of the most tragic and neglected human rights crises in recent history. In 2003, Jan Egeland, former UN secretary general for humanitarian affairs, claimed that there was no "part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda that is getting such little international attention." The international community's reluctance to take action to end the atrocities—especially those directed toward children—was, in Egeland's words, "a moral outrage."

According to UN estimates, the LRA abducted 20,000 children over the course of twenty-two years. Child soldiers conscripted by the LRA were subjected to severe brutality and psychological distress; some were forced to kill members of their families. A whole generation of youth grew up in IDP camps where nearly 70 percent of the inhabitants were under 25 years old. The Survey of War Affected Youth (SWAY), a UNICEF-funded analysis of the effects of the war on Ugandan adolescents, bluntly states, "Youth have been both the primary victims and the primary actors in the two-decade-long war in northern Uganda … [though] we have little sense of the magnitude, incidence and nature of this violence and trauma."

Since the ceasefire was declared in August of 2006 the violence has abated, but serious deficiencies in infrastructure, health care and education pose formidable challenges as people return to their villages or transit camps and begin to rebuild their lives. Northern Uganda is the poorest region in Uganda, which in turn is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the fact that Uganda possesses some of the most fertile soil in Africa and is rich in natural resources, 7 million of its citizens live in chronic poverty. Development efforts in northern Uganda have been hindered by chronic instability and the threat of continued violence. While the national poverty rate has declined to 35 percent, in northern Uganda the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day remains at 65 percent. Poor sanitation, a high infant mortality rate, food insecurity, malnutrition and lack of access to basic education for children compound the hardships of poverty and make it even more difficult to overcome.

"The Lost Generation" Finds the Way to Lasting Peace

As the government and the LRA draft the blueprints to a fragile truce, the youth who spent most or all of their childhoods in IDP camps or fighting in the bush have started returning home. For the many youth who were born and raised in the camps, this "return" marks the first time that they set foot in their family's villages. And, because the vast majority of former-IDPs do not go back to their ancestral lands, the resettlement is really more a process of going home—or creating a home—for the first time. Members of this so-called "lost generation" are taking the lead to address local issues in the war's aftermath and are forging a more peaceful and prosperous future for their communities.

One of AJWS's Ugandan grantees, Gulu Youth for Action (GYFA) was established in 2001 by adolescents in the Acholi, Kitgum and Pader districts of northern Uganda, where much of the violence was concentrated. The youth were inspired to create the collective after helping the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children conduct a research study that identified five key areas that were limiting development in their communities: inadequate health facilities, difficulty obtaining schooling, abject poverty, lack of security and frequent human rights violations. The findings also revealed the untapped potential of youth to make change in their communities. GYFA emerged as a youth-led organization founded on the conviction that youth play an essential role in community development.

GYFA aims to guide youth to become responsible, self-sufficient and participatory citizens through projects that augment post-primary schooling, develop civic leadership and promote human rights. On the one hand, GYFA has provided much-needed targeted health, social and educational services on the ground, but on the other, the organization's work has a much broader scope: its capacity-building and good governance workshops enable youth to be advocates for their villages on regional, national and even international levels.

GYFA's AJWS-supported project, "Participation is Real" bridges the two aspects of the organization's work by empowering young people—especially girls and vulnerable children—to be actively involved in the development of their communities. In its sixth year of implementation, "Participation is Real" trains youth leaders about environmental conservation, HIV/AIDS prevention and good governance. This year, CCYA has taught twelve young women and three young men about leadership, advocacy and the principles of human rights. The project's main objectives are to promote women's rights through the development of a supportive legal framework for women and, more generally, to train a cadre of young "change-makers—youth leaders and social entrepreneurs capable of reclaiming their futures and becoming catalysts for change."

"The training helped teach us the advantages of democratic leadership," reflected Catherine Akumu, a participant in the leadership workshop. "But most importantly it has given us the strength to encourage the other women in our community to see leadership as an important factor in the development of our community."

"I can now mobilize other community members with confidence," said Grace Aciro, another attendee. "In the past I thought community organizing was for politicians and paid leaders alone, but now I know that I can build good relations with community members. I can now feel comfortable speaking with members of my community and I am open to different opinions."

Leading by Example, Mentoring Youth for Change

AJWS partners with another grassroots organization based out of northern Uganda that enables orphans and vulnerable children to receive an education and obtain sustainable sources of income. The Concerned Children and Youth Association (CCYA) is a "child- and youth-focused organization working towards peace, unity and social and economic empowerment through advocacy, psychosocial support, sensitization, community outreach, networking and educational support." In order to achieve these objectives, the organization has established a scholarship program to encourage higher education for girls and conducted trainings on capacity building and human rights monitoring techniques. Started in 2001 as the youth-led branch of the Concerned Parent Association, CCYA was founded on the belief that because youth and young children were most deeply affected by the war, young people should stand up and make their voices heard.

With AJWS's support, CCYA runs several successful initiatives to improve the physical and psychological well-being of vulnerable children in the region. CCYA promotes public awareness of reproductive health issues and HIV/AIDS through a voluntary counseling and testing program. This project is helping to reverse the trend of skyrocketing HIV/AIDS infection rates in northern Uganda, where the prevalence rate is now 8.2 percent—3.2 percent above the national average. Adolescents aged 15 – 19 years old are the second largest demographic of HIV/AIDS positive people in Uganda and, due to the frequency of forced prostitution and child marriages among those who live in IDP camps, girls are three to six times more at risk than their male counterparts. CCYA's leadership trainings for women and higher education scholarship programs advance the unique needs of women and girls in their communities, and complement the organization's more general HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns. By combining HIV/AIDS prevention strategies with projects that educate and empower youth and women, CCYA is implementing long-term solutions to deep-seated issues and laying the foundations for a healthier and more secure society.

CCYA recognizes that combating poverty through sustainable livelihoods is vital to break the cycle of hunger, violence and disease. In 2009, the organization initiated a reforestation project that generates income for local youth while protecting the environment. The nursery of native trees that CCYA cultivated operates as a training ground for young people on tree-planting and care. CCYA will distribute a total of 2,000 fruit and timber tree seedlings to the households of orphans and vulnerable children, restoring the natural environment and improving nutrition and providing a long-term source of cooking fuel. In this way, CCYA brings economic development that benefits those who need it most and conserves Uganda's valuable resources.

"As a child I always dreamt of living in a house surrounded by orchards and this project has helped me to realize this dream," says Orach Bitek Cosmas, one of CCYA's beneficiaries. "Participating in this project has really helped me build my leadership capabilities … Now that we are home we have got to realize that no one will come and build our communities for us—it is ours; we must either build it or lose it."

CCYA's leaders are inspiring a new generation of empowered youth. Akello Sharon, an 11-year-old boy who has participated in CCYA's programs for vulnerable children, described the impact of the organization's work: "Now that I have spoken to some of the CCYA members who are in higher institutions of learning, I am motivated to study very hard. I want to be like them, too."

Youthful vision and exemplary leadership, like that of the young people of CCYA and GYFA, can build a more peaceful and just society. It really is that simple—because, as Akello notes, the most effective change-maker is a role model as well.

—Rachel Wiseman