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Photo credit: Saferworld
Photo credit: Saferworld

Respecting the voices of young people in Gok-Machar

In Gok-Machar in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan, the relationship between young people, their community, and local authorities is historically fractured. Community action groups, supported by Saferworld and Community Initiative for Partnership and Development (CIPAD) have brought young people, communities, and authorities together to address the issues, with positive results.

“Over the past two years, fear and uncertainty were increasing among the population of Gok-Machar town. Crime such as thefts, robberies, attempted rape, child and forced marriages, and teenage pregnancies were on the rise in our communities. Young people were skipping and dropping out of school, and frequently fighting at night clubs,” said James Anei, Commissioner of former Malual North County.

With a population of over 30,000 (15,329 men and 16,724 women), and over 6,000 households*, Gok-Machar is a small town in Aweil North in Northern Bahr el ghazal State, South Sudan. The main income for the community comes from farming, livestock rearing, fishing and forestry. But there are high levels of unemployment and food insecurity, and many families have to survive on low incomes.

Young people in Gok-Machar are particularly impacted by this. Unemployment and low income households mean many parents are unable to pay school fees and young people miss out on an education and better future. There is also a lack of opportunities available for young people looking to work which leads to an increase in crime. Manoon Koul, a youth representative in Gok-Machar states that, “half of the population in police custody and prisons in Gok-Machar are young people on charges of theft, robbery, fighting, rape, adultery, and alcohol and drug abuse.”  

Young people cite the way they are unfairly treated by community leaders and authorities. They mention facing higher fines at local courts when cases involve youth, and a rise in bride price  (cattle that the groom’s family must give the bride’s family before marriage), meaning young men often resort to criminal activities to acquire this. Manoon continues, “As young people we feel that authorities do not respect us unless we are working, and authorities do not welcome our opinions involving community or governance issues”.

On the other hand, local authorities and other community members often blame young people for being unproductive and causing problems within their communities. Seventy percent of South Sudan’s population are young people under the age of 30, constituting a sizable section of society. But the current state of affairs has led to a view that young people spend most of their time playing games and excessively drinking alcohol in marketplaces, instead of working to help their families. These factors mean the relationship between the youth, community members, and local authorities at both payam (administrative division) and county levels is fraught and urgently needed addressing.

Saferworld and partner Community Initiative for Partnership and Development (CIPAD) work to build trusting relationships between youth, their communities and authorities in Gok-Machar. As part of our work in April 2019, a two-day dialogue was hosted between young people and representatives of the wider Gok-Machar community and authorities to jointly come up with a set of rules that would help build a common understanding and way forward to ease tensions. Over 150 people attended.

Saferworld Project Coordinator Santino Manut said, “We wanted to bring everyone together to make sure that there was a neutral environment to talk through the issues. Involving young people in the discussion ensured that their voices were heard and that the rules were not forcefully imposed on them”.

During the meeting, some young women were wary of speaking up about their concerns due to traditional norms which limit women’s participation in public. They feared being viewed as disrespectful for speaking in front of elders (men), coupled with the lack of amicable relationships between young people and authorities. Despite this challenge, at the end of the event the participants agreed and signed resolutions to take forward as a community and young people. Community members and local authority officials also exchanged contact details to take the discussions forward.

The resolutions included:

  1. Parents of school-age children must pay school fees, provide school uniforms, and check in with their children to make sure the children do not skip school. It was agreed that local chiefs would check in with parents to see if the parents are intentionally not paying school fees for children, or are unable to because of financial constraints.
  2. Young people shall make the effort to respect and listen to the advice of their mothers, fathers and community leaders.
  3. Young people shall refrain from practicing criminal behavior, and should help their communities in development initiatives that promote peace.
  4. Community members, chiefs and local authorities shall ensure that early and forced marriage is stopped, and those who fail to comply will face the law according to the statutory courts stipulated in Penal Code act of 2008.
  5. Community members, chiefs and local authorities shall encourage girls to go to school by raising awareness in the community on the importance of education for girls and recording data on class numbers to monitor the attendance of the girls.
  6. Use of video clubs during school hours shall be stopped. Previously, video clubs that show films throughout the day would often result in children skipping school and even dropping out – an issue raised at a previous community group meeting in April 2019.

One year on from the dialogue, the results have been positive and significant differences have been noticed in the relationships between youth and others in the community. CIPAD Project Coordinator, Ariath Deng Deng notes, “Now young people are being consulted and invited [to] various meetings by community leaders and authorities,” as the dialogue demonstrated young people’s willingness to contribute and better their livelihood. The community note that such an opportunity for collaboration and understanding between young people, community leaders and authorities had been missing.

While some young people have become self-employed through micro-businesses and farming unemployment remains high and an underlying cause of insecurity within the area. Young leaders and chiefs continue to advocate with the local government to tackle the issue of unemployment. While the county commissioner has explained that there is no current budget to increase employment schemes, he has committed to raise issue of youth unemployment with higher authorities and to discuss the issue with UN agencies and other non-governmental organisations operating in the county.

 

* South Sudan population and housing census 2008

Photo: Group discussion during an authorities and youth dialogue in Majakkar, a village near Gok-Marchar in June 2019.