Central American youth send united anti-violence message

By Jennifer Brookland

December 20, 2013

The national coordinators of Central America’s Youth Against Violence Movement spoke at the World Bank about their efforts to raise awareness about violence prevention, and advocate for more effective and inclusive policies.

Aleyda Méndez was a newly minted teacher working in rural El Salvador when she realized her country was in serious trouble. When she asked her 10-year-old students what they wanted to be when they grew up, several of them told her, “murderers.”

Mendez was stunned. But she understood. Drug and gang violence in El Salvador had made it common for these kids to see dead people lying in a public street, and for parents to bury their children. Killing had become normal.

Shocked at how drug and gang violence was rending communities like her own, Mendez started looking for ways she could get involved in prevention. She heard through Facebook about a fledgling youth campaign and went to a meeting.

“We decided we no longer wanted to be victims,” she says. “We wanted to be the solution.”

Mendez and her compatriots founded the Youth Against Violence movement with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Creative Associates International, whose Alianza Joven Regional program reduced at-risk youth’s vulnerability to gang recruitment and crafted national and regional policies for violence prevention.

“Youth has a reputation as always being part of the problem,” says Mendez. “The goal is to raise public awareness, advocate for violence prevention policies and to tell Salvadoran citizens to listen to the voices of youth who really want to participate.”

Less than three years later, the movement had spread to all seven Central American countries, and this year, Mendez is serving as the rotating regional president of the entire network.

A representative from each nation presented their work and achievements to an audience at the World Bank on Dec. 11, which was co-hosted by the multilateral institution, USAID and Creative.

“Usually we come to these conferences and we pontificate about solutions,” said Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Sector Director of the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean. “But now we get to sit down with you—the leaders of today who are really working on these issues of violence.”

A young strategy to counter violence

The World Bank has reason to pay attention to crime in Central America. In some countries the direct costs of violence leech 8 percent of gross domestic product, according to Ijjasz-Vasquez. For families and individuals, it reinforces poverty that carries a special sting given the region’s overall rising prosperity.

“The World Bank believes it is essential to solve this problem in order to eliminate poverty but also for these economies to grow, and for inequality, so common in these countries, to be solved,” says Ijjasz-Vasquez.

It is a shift, however, that the World Bank and other international development agencies are looking to young people like Mendez, and the Youth Against Violence movement, to solve it.

Since youth are disproportionately affected by violence in Central America, a year-old USAID policy expressly identifies them as assets instead of instigators.

“That’s a mindset change that I think is long overdue, and I think our youth leaders from this region are a great example of that,” says Beth Hogan, USAID’s Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. “You folks are really changing the face of how donors, implementers and governments see youth in your societies as leaders with potential as opposed to simply causing problems that need to be dealt with.”

USAID hopes the policy will help shape and galvanize the agency’s support of youth-focused and youth-led initiatives.

Initiatives like the ones carried out by Esteban Escobar, the Youth Against Violence movement’s national coordinator from Guatemala.

Disgusted that Guatemala’s homicide rate rivaled that of countries at war, Escobar helped get violence prevention included for the first time in the national agenda for development, and led awareness campaigns that, on a shoestring budget of $700, beat out major companies for social marketing awards.

Or Ángel Saldaña, one of the founding members of Panama’s movement, who this year led 1,000 youths and their parents in discussions about accepting differences, parenting, interpersonal relations and nonviolence.

His counterpart in Honduras, Santiago Ávila, has pulled off creative crime reduction campaigns, like identifying the most robbery-prone streets in la Ceiba—the third most violent city in the country—and organizing nighttime soccer games there.

At the end of the initiative, the police said they wish they’d thought of it themselves.

Youth voices that need to be heard

The movement’s activities in Honduras have gone well past neighborhood streets.  Ávila and his colleagues made recommendations for a more restorative national juvenile justice system that could replace the ineffective mano dura approach, and submitted reports to Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice on violence prevention policies that would be both effective and inclusive.

“The greatest success is being able to give a voice to Honduran youth, bringing their proposals in front of decision makers and having credibility in society as a youth organization that is truly achieving a change in peoples’ attitudes nationwide,” Ávila says.

For Ávila, who grew up in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Honduras’s capital Tegucigalpa, just being alive is an achievement. Many of the kids he grew up with never made it to his age—26.

The other national coordinators can relate to him: Bolívar Araya of Costa Rica saw three childhood friends murdered this year despite his country’s proclaimed culture of peace.

Nicaragua’s Elvis Zambrana recalled going to high school in a dangerous neighborhood where students fell victim to armed assaults every day. He says high levels of poverty and early pregnancy should merit more government expenditure on education and poverty alleviation—money that goes, instead, to countering violence.

Cordelia Belezaire lost a coworker and a nephew last year to violence in Belize, a country that has homicide rates higher than Guatemala and a lot fewer people. She says that with youth comprising more than 60 percent of the population, it is critical that decision-makers recognize young people as a relevant voice.

That drive to show decision-makers that youth have important things to say about violence prevention motivates all of the movement leaders. It has also drawn them to work together.

They have joined to elevate the issue above street-level, and into the Central America Integration System, a regional political and economic union.

“We know that violence doesn’t affect just one country but the region as a whole,” says El Salvador’s Mendez. “We need regional responses. That is why youth have united in order to work on this, organizing activities simultaneously in order to draw attention and raise awareness.”

At the request of the Costa Rican president, Youth Against Violence movement representatives joined the presidents of Central American nations at a 2013 regional integration summit in order to establish an international dialogue.

Movement leaders would like to expand even farther—into the Caribbean possibly, or Latin America. Theirs is a vision young people in any number of countries feel passionately about.

They’ll face challenges if they grow, as they already have at home. An all-volunteer network can be hard to sustain and motivate. Policy recommendations delivered at the highest levels are implemented slowly, if at all.

And resources are not just skimpy, they’re often nonexistent. The youth movement chapters in Costa Rica, Belize and Nicaragua have never received funding.

Nevertheless some donors see great promise in the Youth Against Violence Movement, and in its leaders.

“We are totally committed to taking this embryonic model to its final potential,” says Pablo Maldonado, Creative’s Chief Operating Officer. “We are very excited about it. I hope we can count on your support- these young men and women clearly deserve it.”

The national coordinators would gladly accept support. But as for deserving something, they’d say it is youth in their countries who should have the chance to grow up in peace. That is a message they think cannot wait.

“We have something to say,” says Costa Rica’s Araya. “We’re not only the future. We are the present.”

To watch a video about the Youth Against Violence Movement, please click here.

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