The future of reconciliation in Madagascar may hinge on its youth, but their involvement in months of political violence and continued exposure to turmoil has left them embittered and particularly vulnerable, says a new report.
"Adolescents have clearly been in the front line of change but at the same time have been extremely vulnerable to violence and crime," said the report, Pandora's Box: Youth at a Crossroads, compiled by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and a group of international and local NGOs.
The document gives voice to the views and concerns of some 13,000 adolescent Malagasy in Analamanga, the country's central region where the capital, Antananarivo, is situated, who were interviewed about the impact of the recent political demonstrations that left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
"It is striking how violence has altered their perceptions, and how much anger and frustration this has created," Bruno Maes, UNICEF's Madagascar Representative, told IRIN.
"Could you live here? Who cares if I die? I am not alive anyway," said one interviewee. Another commented: "Every time I hear shooting, my heart beats out of control and I start to shake. My thoughts go to what might happen, and what I would do if members of my family died."
The ongoing standoff between Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of Antananarivo, and ousted President Marc Ravalomanana, began in January 2009 and culminated in what the international community condemned as a "coup-style" change of leadership. Ravalomanana fled into exile in South Africa.
|Idiots! You pushed us into a situation from where there is no return|
Despite mounting international pressure and numerous mediation attempts, the feuding parties have failed to reach an accommodation, while Madagascar's economy and governance structures are crumbling. "It's absurd. What happened to us? Where are our values? Can't we talk to one another instead of killing?" one interviewee wondered.
"Idiots! You pushed us into a situation from where there is no return. Do you think the youth that were at the barricades will be quiet in the future? Do you think they will care about voting next time? Why should they?" said another.
Researchers explored the effects of the sociopolitical crisis on the lives of young people; the impact on their emotional, psychological, social and educational well-being, and highlighted the gradual erosion of traditional values.
"[The] results are worrying because, in addition to increased violence, youth express a growing division within communities and among peers. Previous experience has shown that violence breeds violence and if we do not act now, it might be too late," Maes warned.
According to the report, "One long-term consequence of this crisis is the difficulty for young people to distinguish what is 'correct' and what is 'incorrect'; what is 'true' and what is' false', as traditional grounding values have been radically altered by recent events."
One interviewee suggested that "The Malagasy people have become aggressive and all fraternity has gone, along with all the development efforts. 'Fihavanana' [the traditional value system] has disappeared." Another was more cynical: "Life on the street has always been a life of misery; now that we can steal without anyone saying anything, it's better."
The youth's perceptions of the crisis pointed to a weakening of the law enforcement and justice structure, opening the door to even greater dangers: easily available drugs, trafficking of children, prostitution, child abuse and the creation of criminal youth gangs, are all finding fertile ground in this volatile situation, the report noted.
Involved but invisible youth
"Youth have held leading roles in the social and political life of Madagascar over recent months: they have taken part in street demonstrations, been involved in the violence, have helped set up roadblocks; they have been victims of violence and crimes, and have found their right to education denied," the authors pointed out.
Yet young people seem to have been largely forgotten in humanitarian interventions. "Caught in a limbo of being neither children nor adults, they are among the first to bear the consequences of violence and aggression," the report commented.
Adolescents revealed mixed feelings about the future: "I think I am scared every day, I fear for my future ... it is a deep fear that cannot be seen from the outside," said one interviewee.
The report proposed urgent interventions by all stakeholders to reduce the exposure of young people to violence by providing an immediate response to their concerns, providing them with personalized services tailored to their age, promoting the values of peace and reconciliation, and increasing their involvement as agents for positive social change.
"Such negative experiences expose young people to long-term risks and the possibility that they become more aggressive," said Maes. "It is possible to reverse this trend; however, this will require immediate and bold action."