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Pandemic focuses attention on investing in youth initiatives to prevent violent extremism


Listening to young people and investing in grassroots youth initiatives is an important step in any practical move to prevent violent extremism, a high-level UN virtual event heard.

Virtual Counter Terrorism Week organized by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, explored practical and strategic challenges to prevent violent extremism and counter terrorism in a pandemic environment through a series of ten webinars and interactive discussions which took place from July 6 to 10 2020.

UNESCO’s response to the pandemic has focused on supporting education from disruption to recovery and by harnessing partnerships through its Global Education Coalition.

Representing UNESCO Ms Vibeke Jensen, Director of the Division for Peace and Sustainable Development, took part in a session on ‘Prevention of Violent Extremism and Strengthening Social Cohesion: Investing in Youth-led and Youth-driven Initiatives to build Resilient Societies’.

During the session, moderated by Ms Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ms Jensen responded to a statement by Ms Wevyn Muganda, Kenyan human rights activist and founder of the Beyond the Lines blog and Mutual Aid Kenya

Ms Muganda highlighted the real impact of the pandemic on the ground in Kenya.

‘During these difficult times, for many of the communities I work with, staying home is not possible when you live in a tiny and crowded house. E-learning is inaccessible and where available is expensive or unsafe for use. Unemployment and loss of income has left many starving and struggling to make rent. Should you go out, you risk infection, should you stay in, you risk starvation. It may be difficult to comprehend but this is the reality for many young people,' she said.

Ms Jensen spoke of the importance of UNESCO’s work in promoting education in Preventing Violent Extremism and the consequential challenges for youth.

‘Young people soon came to the fore in providing voluntary and vital support; and the international community was also quick to come together to share experiences and provide open access to their knowledge, to find innovative and effective solutions to the biggest human crisis of our time,’ she said.

‘At the same time, however, we have witnessed a rise in intolerance, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, conspiracy theories, and hate speech, both off-line and online. Young people at home with more time to spend online have become exposed to another pandemic of disinformation, violent extremist and hateful messages which may either exclude or act as recruitment.’

Ms Muganda, through her Mutual Aid Kenya initiative, has built a network of national volunteers to distribute education materials for children who could not access distance learning, food and sanitation supplies in their communities.

'We need to appreciate how interconnected we are. We need to do more than just make promises to support young people and put our money where our mouth is, and that means investing heavily in the capacity of young people to be key players in building peace and more resilient communities,' she said.

At the closing session Mr Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), emphasized that: 'We need a massive investment in young people and gender-sensitive and youth-driven initiatives if we want to build healthy and inclusive societies.

'COVID-19 has highlighted, and it could also exacerbate, old and new challenges and fault-lines that terrorists are keen to exploit. We need to strengthen multilateralism and international cooperation at all levels.”

The week gathered Member States, United Nations entities, thought leaders, youth civil society representatives, tech companies and other key stakeholders together and explored themes including how to protect and promote human rights to build resilience to terrorism, harness a ‘whole society’ approach to respond to the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on international efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism; and proposed innovative strategies and opportunities for a way forward.