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Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century

Across the globe, a generation of youth is rapidly reaching adulthood bearing the tragic consequences of their nations’ worst problems.

IRIN traces the impact of the events shaping the lives of young people around the world: from the illegal forced marriage of teenage girls in Afghanistan and Ethiopia, to the tripling of school fees and the deteriorating education system in Zimbabwe. 

Cultural conservatism, as well as fear of attacks on schools by Taliban insurgents, and poverty, mean half of all Afghan children do not go to school, and those who do often ‘graduate’ to unemployment. To be young in some nations is to be more disadvantaged than one’s parents were: the numbers of children attending school in the Republic of Congo has fallen from almost 100 per cent before the 1998-2002 civil war to below 75 percent now. The same is true in northern Uganda where high illiteracy rates are a consequence of two decades of war and insecurity, condemning Acholi youngsters brought up in displaced peoples’ camps to a life of far fewer opportunities than older siblings, parents and even grandparents. 

Educational and economic collapse is given as one reason for the ease with which militias in the east of theDemocratic Republic of Congo recruited teenagers into their ranks - demobilisation programmes struggle to convince many of them to resume civilian lives. Young Somalis, who escaped violence at home, face a different problem: as part of an ‘educated elite’ at schools in refugee camps in Kenya, they are unable to put their education to good use as long as Kenya’s government curtails their movement outside the camps. 

Life beyond school is equally challenging: some medical students in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, arrive hours before classes just to save a space close enough to a university lecturer to hear him speak. Classes often stretch to more than 1,200 students and lecturers demand financial rewards for granting students good marks. Young Guineans with degrees end up hawking goods on city streets - a factor influencing their decision to agitate for political change, which they say “is going to come with violence”. 

University campuses in Côte d’Ivoire have become a breeding ground for pro-government political militancy and extortion, while Nigeria is trying to curb the influence of predatory student cults that in the past few years have opened fire on students in examinations, and continue to intimidate or kill anti-cult activists. 

Gang culture dominates the lives of tens of thousands of South Africans in Cape Town. In addition, youngsters addicted to tik (crystal meth) land up in juvenile detention centres where conditions and counselling are inadequate. Street gangs are also common in N’Djamena, capital of Chad, a country where the role of the youth is said to have been crucial to every political transition since 1975. 

Emotionally bereft, many Rwandan teenagers are not rebelling but still recovering from the 1994 genocide that defined their lives. Loss and injustice also characterise the lives of an estimated 250,000-300,000 Kenyan street children, while three-quarters of Kenyan sex workers interviewed for a United Nations report said they felt commercial sex was an acceptable way to make money. 

In Pakistan, the wealth gap between rich and poor is blamed for a surge in petty crime, committed mostly by people aged 16-25 years. Drug addiction is also a problem among the young and privileged. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States and the war in Afghanistan that followed, many middle-class boys in Pakistan have been turning away from Western lifestyles and identifying with extremist Islamic groups and the violence they promote. 

‘Soul hunters’ from religious or criminal groups in the densely populated Ferghana Valley linking Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan prey on young people facing unemployment or migration to Russia or Kazakhstan - vocational training set up under the Soviet system to provide skills for the labour market has collapsed. 

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, some young people take pride in joining groups involved in what they term resistance to Israel, while in Lebanon more teenagers have joined Lebanon’s Hezbollah political party since the 2006 war between Hezbollah militias and Israel’s largely conscripted army. In Iraq, some families say they would rather see their teenagers and children die fighting American soldiers than become victims of spiralling sectarian violence. 

These issues form part of IRIN’s In-Depth on Youth in Crisis which also contains features on the transition from childhood to adulthood, education, war, migration,HIV/AIDS, violence and urbanisation, as well as photos,links and references.