by Sarah Anne Rennick
What are the various consequences on a young person’s life trajectory when she or he comes into adulthood in a context of conflict? What happens to anticipated plans for the future – education, marriage, first employment – when they are profoundly disrupted by the eruption of conflict, and what types of coping mechanisms and strategies are adopted by youth in the face of such disruptions? And how does the transition into adulthood in a fluid normative context – where violence can be abundant, gender traditional roles can be upended, and trauma widespread – shape individual political values and beliefs as well as social relations with the community and within the family?
In exploring how youth navigate their own lives and construct themselves when the transition to adulthood occurs in a context of conflict, evidence shows that conflict acts as both an opportunity and a constraint to youth in terms of livelihood opportunities, pathways for wellbeing, experiences of political inclusion, and feelings of empowerment and disempowerment. At the same time, though, youth trajectories during contexts of conflict are neither linear nor strictly dependent on the structure of available opportunities. Indeed, how youth make decisions with regards to their own lives, and the factors that influence their decision-making, demonstrate complex processes involving specific contextual factors, the configuration of social relations, and positionality within conflict dynamics, among others. In this sense, youth trajectories in contexts of conflict are both highly diverse and often unexpected but also, critically, can shift repeatedly. Unpacking this complexity is of critical importance, though, if we are to grasp the multiple and even contradictory ways in which conflict impacts the trajectories of young adults. It also critical to understanding the broader implications at the societal level in terms of future patterns of political participation, beliefs, and attitudes as well social and gender relations within and between communities and generations.
From 2020-2021, the Arab Reform Initiative undertook a broad research program to investigate the personal trajectories of youth in conflict, focusing on those who have come into adulthood since 2011 in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. This research, based on 75 qualitative semi-structured interviews in each country and, where possible, focus group discussions, has investigated the perceptions and decision-making processes of youth and broader-term implications in political, economic, social, and personal terms. More precisely, this research investigated youth trajectories and broader social and political implications through analysis at three distinct levels. At the micro-level, the research investigated the personal narratives of youth and how they view the impact of the conflict in terms of personal self-construction. This included investigating their decision-making matrices and aspirations, the coping strategies they have found, as well as how they have felt empowered/disempowered in the context of conflict. At the meso-level, the research explored the contextual factors mediating youth’s decision-making and their margins of maneuver, including war and peacebuilding economies, existing programming and external aid for youth, shifting power structures and social hierarchies, and normative fluctuations, conducting intersectional analysis to understand how different social positions (ethnicity, religion, gender, class, etc.) shape different narratives and strategies. Finally, at the meta-level, the research sought to assess the diverse political and peacebuilding content with regards to youth values, agency, and forms of engagement, focusing in particular on youth meaningful political participation, everyday practices of peacebuilding, and the establishment of gender equality if and where it occurred.
The study presented here relays the outcomes of the research undertaken with Iraqi youth, where field interviews took place in 2020 in the cities of Mosul and Basra, sites where different types of conflict have occurred, ranging from the violent conflict with ISIS to the transformative social conflict of the Tishreen protest movement. In taking stock of these in-depth and highly personal interviews, this study contributes new knowledge and insights regarding how the transition to adulthood under conflict has impacted the acquisition of experiences and skills, needs and aspirations, and changes in perceptions and perspectives of Iraqi youth. The research presented here thus explores how youth narrate their personal trajectories and the impact of events on their own lives, but also how they understand the country’s political evolution and the nature of the conflict itself. The study explores what factors (moral, ideological, political, social, economic, personal, or other) motivate or drive their decisions, how they perceive of opportunities and constraints for their own pathways, and how they find or create opportunities for themselves. The study also investigates how gender norms and gender performative roles been transformed as a result of the conflicts and the impact of these changes in their own social relations and aspirations for the future. Finally, the study sheds light on Iraqi youth’s personal attitudes towards violence and non-violence, what concepts such as peace, justice, and reconciliation actually mean to them and what they look like in practice, and the extent to which youth perceive of agency in their own lives and the roles they seek to play in renewing the political order and social contract of Iraq.
In exploring these variety of themes, this study also has crucial policy relevance. Youth face particular forms of precarity that render them among the most vulnerable population groups in the transition out of conflict and reconstruction phase, yet at the same time they are a key demographic in sustaining stability and peace and in leading broader conflict transformation processes. Despite this, youth as a particular population subset are often under-investigated, and under-serviced by policy-makers and external stakeholders implementing programming for conflict relief and post-conflict recovery. Much attention is paid to children (meaning those in adolescence or younger), given the rights-based approaches that have been adopted in the global arena and the existence of large-scale policy frameworks and organizations that care for them such as UNICEF. At the same time, transition process in post-conflict contexts are often dominated by adult gatekeepers (such as regional elites, village elders, etc.) that limit youth participation, in particular in political processes. As a result, youth can find themselves doubly excluded. Just as importantly, discursive notions of youth in contexts of conflict are often understood within ideological frames and definitions that push forward certain lines of programming that can be detached from their actual lived experiences, needs, and understandings. The dominant discourses surrounding youth in contexts of conflict tend to focus on youth as development investments, or as threats to security, or as agents of change. Such discourses largely guide the types of interventions made by external actors seeking to mitigate conflict or promote peacebuilding. Yet, such interventions and vocabularies can be tinged with paternalistic attitudes and the imposition of social and cultural norms and expectations that are disconnected from how youth themselves view their lives, their interpretations of their context, and their ambitions for themselves and their communities.
In publishing this study, the Arab Reform Initiative is contributing new knowledge on Iraqi youth in the context of the post-ISIS conflict and current Tishreen uprising, taking as its point of departure how youth themselves narrate and navigate their trajectories, choices, aspirations, and interpretations and the heterogeneity of youth lived experience. In turn, this ground-up, evidence-based research can be utilized to adapt policies, programs, and responses designed for, with, and by youth to ensure that they account for the diverse realities of Iraqi youth today, and to ensure that they are not left behind in the post-conflict period.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.