Yemen is a youthful nation, with three-quarters of the population under the age of 30.1 Despite living in a site of active conflict, Yemeni youth have displayed a complex relationship with the war that defies typical characterizations of youth in conflict zones as either perpetrators or victims of violence. Just as they have the propensity towards violence under the conflict’s adverse conditions, young Yemeni women and men have taken active roles in leading efforts for peace and positive change. The resilience, pragmatism, and ingenuity they have demonstrated in responding to the war makes them pivotal actors in transforming the conflict environment and creating positive peace in their communities.
However, almost six years after the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2250, which recognizes that “young people play an important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security”,2 young Yemeni peacebuilders remain largely excluded from formal peace processes. Together with the closing of political spaces where youth can engage in governance and participate in political processes, youth exclusion from the peace process leaves young Yemenis with little to no avenues to influence and participate in decision-making processes. This persistent exclusion of young people robs them of their right to take part in processes and decisions that affect their lives in the short and long term. It also misses the opportunity to harness the energies of young people in the promotion of peace at the same time that war leaders actively seek to recruit young people into their ranks. Yet, investing in young Yemenis, who will be entrusted to lead the country in the future, is paramount to break the cycles of violence and bring the country closer to sustainable and positive peace.
Currently, the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen (OSESGY) is paving the ground for a nationwide ceasefire.3 The aim of the ceasefire is to halt military hostilities on all fronts and create conducive conditions for the resumption of political talks between the conflict parties that would facilitate their agreement on key humanitarian and economic measures. The ceasefire process provides a unique opportunity for Yemeni youth to not only raise their voices but also be key players in the negotiations and implementation processes. However, as this research shows, there are a number of challenges that must be addressed first for young Yemenis to meaningfully contribute to the ceasefire process. This includes a lack of an overarching vision that could unify young Yemenis and help them mobilize for peace; a lack of information and knowledge regarding the ceasefire process, including its existence, purpose, and structure; and a lack of platforms and networks where young Yemenis can engage in constructive dialogue with each other and with key stakeholders on the ceasefire process. Addressing these challenges will require the engagement of Yemeni youth themselves, as well as support from international donors, OSESGY, and national and international civil society organizations.
As this research shows, engaging young Yemenis and supporting their role in peacebuilding cannot wait until after a comprehensive peace deal is signed, which is unlikely to occur soon. In fact, the UN-led peace process in Yemen has come to a halt since the 2018 Stockholm agreement, and hopes for a new nationwide ceasefire are met with numerous challenges, not least of which is the Houthis’ renewed attacks on Marib.4 Hence, engaging Yemeni youth in the ceasefire process should start now, with a focus on building their capacities to not only understand and engage with the ceasefire process but also to lead efforts for positive change in their communities. It is equally important for international donors and civil society organizations to create safe and constructive spaces for creativity, dialogue, and debate, where young Yemenis can express themselves and share their experiences and ideas on how to build peace in their communities.
Who Are the Youth? Retrieving a Youth Voice
A common identity of youth was most prevalent and forceful in Yemen during the 2011 uprising. In the midst of widespread corruption and economic inequality, young Yemenis from all over the country banded together in a common cause and under a single banner. Yet, Yemeni youth ceased to act as a political force soon after the power transition process ushered in by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative.5 Against this backdrop, it became ever more vague who ‘youth’ are and what their concerns are. The definition of the concept ‘youth’ varies across cultures and organizations. The UN defines young people as those between the ages of 15 and 24 years, with some variations in definition amongst its agencies.6 In Yemeni society, this definition varies depending on the individual’s location (urban/rural), responsibilities (married/non-married), and life stage (student/worker). For example, young women or men in rural areas might be forced into adulthood through early marriage, whereas urban 30- or 40-year-olds who are single and/or still live with their parents might consider themselves as youth. Perhaps what connects all young people in Yemen, regardless of their differences, is that they all have a large stake in a future that is being shaped by political and economic forces beyond their control. Their agency is further limited by the lack of opportunities to improve their socioeconomic conditions that could help them realize their full potential.
In fact, the transition into adulthood can be difficult for youth who have not yet realized their personal and professional goals. This is the case for Yemenis who are entering adulthood with incomplete access to education, missing out on professional development opportunities, and facing limited employment prospects. Conflict, according to one research participant, aggravates these problems, further limiting young people’s capacity to develop as individuals and mature into responsible adults. He added: “For the majority of young Yemenis, the wheel of life stopped the moment the war began seven years ago.” Therefore, it is important to consider the different life stages and experiences of young Yemenis when designing interventions aimed at engaging them in the peace process.
There is no single Yemeni youth, but rather a diversity of experiences and voices that need to be included in any discussion or effort on youth engagement. This is particularly relevant when it comes to ceasefire and peacebuilding efforts: young people directly affected by the war are likely to see ending hostilities as a priority; whereas those who have not experienced the war first-hand may be more interested in political participation. Yet, as one research participant insisted, what young Yemenis need is an opportunity to recognize themselves as a collective voice that can advocate for an end to the conflict, rather than being seen only as members of their political, tribal, or geographical communities. The research suggests that forming a stronger collective, yet intersectional identity among Yemeni youth can be achieved through developing a clear vision of their issues and priorities, and how they relate to or differ from those of other social groups. For example, the worsening economic crisis and endemic poverty are problems hardly unique to the youth population in Yemen, but what sets them apart is how they impact young people who are coming of age in a time of unprecedented political instability.
Hence, having this vision clearly defined can help young people to mobilize for and demand peace plans and policies that are tailored to their specific needs. One such demand could be the expansion of demobilization programs during a ceasefire to offer young fighters with work opportunities as well as facilitate their access to educational and training programs. If youth are not vocal about their demands, these programs may not be adequately designed or delivered to meet their specific qualifications and experiences.
Young Yemenis Want a Seat Around the Negotiation Table
As it currently stands, demands of young Yemenis whose lives are affected by its outcomes are excluded from Track I of the peace process. This is because the framework of the UN-led peace recognizes only two parties to the conflict, the internationally recognized government and the Houthis. Despite numerous calls to modify it, this set up continues to marginalize the voices of all other stakeholders, including but not limited to civil society actors, women, and youth.7 Without a new UNSCR, or OSESGY’s inventive strategies to carve out spaces for youth to meaningfully influence the peace agenda, it would be up to the two conflict parties to allow the expansion of the peace talks, an event unlikely to happen voluntarily. As the majority of research participants rightly note, the war economy has provided conflict actors with strong incentives to prolong the war, hence it is in their interest to resist a more inclusive peace process which has been proved by research to have higher rates of creating and sustaining peace.8 Yet, deprived of avenues for political participation, some Yemeni youth still insist on their participation around the negotiation table and see it as a right and an opportunity to access political power structures from which they are otherwise excluded.
Other research participants maintained that focusing on engagement at the other two Tracks could be more fruitful, especially since Track I negotiations tend to stagnate for significant periods of time. Both views are not necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, empowering young Yemenis to play a larger role in Track II and Track III could provide them with more tools, knowledge, and connections that in turn can facilitate their meaningful participation at Track I once the process has resumed. The experiences of other countries also demonstrate that young people can influence the peace process without necessarily being inside the negotiation room. They can help shape the peace process by preparing technical briefing papers at Track II level and leading advocacy campaigns and dialogue, peacebuilding and violence prevention activities at the grassroots level.9 This means engaging Yemeni youth in Track II processes and supporting their work on the ground should start now, regardless of the status of formal talks between the conflict parties.
Distinctive Youth Voices are Missing from Track II Processes
As the research findings show, securing youth engagement through the parallel Track II process, which complements official Track I negotiations, has not been without its challenges. In fact, young people find themselves worse off than women’s groups in achieving a fair representation and meaningful engagement at Track II level. The absence of young people-led, youth-focused networks at Track II level has deprived young people of opportunities to bring their issues to the negotiation table, according to two participants in this research. One noted that when it comes to high-level meetings and conferences, youth problems are frequently paired with those of women, so much so that the agendas of both social groups have come to resemble one another despite the obvious distinctions between the issues facing both groups. Although some youth issues can be discussed in the context of women’s rights, such as early marriage and family violence, young people feel that their unique perspectives are often lost in these forums and that their broader issues, such as youth unemployment and recruitment, are not always taken into account. Hence, there is a need to create an appropriate framework through which youth issues can be addressed independently, in order to ensure that the voices of young people are not overshadowed by those of other social groups.
Treating young people as tokenistic participants at Track II level has also surfaced as a concern during the interviews. This concern is informed by the experience of women’s networks at Track II level, like the Yemeni women’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and the Women’s Solidarity Network, whose recommendations have yet to find their way into the negotiation room.10 The recent addition of two young local peacebuilders to the TAG’s team is certainly a step in the right direction, as are the consultations that the new Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has been having with young peacebuilders as part of the ceasefire preparation process.11 Yet, research participants warn that these efforts should neither be regarded as idle engagement nor as a substitute to having youth networks present at Track II level to monitor the peace process and ensure that youth priorities and concerns are well represented. This point is underlined by the fact that the TAG’s new young members are not even mandated to represent distinctive youth issues, although it can be argued that their lived experiences as young women are likely to have an impact on their input regarding any issue assigned to them.
The Struggle to Ensure Real Representation
The question of representation is complex. There will always be some question marks around those who represent youth issues at the higher tracks of the peace process and in high-level meetings and conferences more generally. Yet, as this research reveals, public skepticism towards the representativeness of the Track II process can be managed by fostering greater transparency and openness in the selection process of young representatives. One of the interviewees explains that participating at Track II level has come to carry with it the risk of harming one’s reputation in the eyes of the public. One salient reason behind this is the lack of public information around the Track II process, the identity of those who participate in it, and the backgrounds that qualify them to be there. She holds that this knowledge can help remedy public mistrust towards Track II level participants, saying that some members of the TAG team are doing incredible work as local peacebuilders and that “they are not elitist; they are part of the community”.
For some research participants, youth representation at the peace tracks is not solely measured in terms of numbers but also in terms of the perspectives on youth needs, priorities, and challenges. The fact that someone is young does not necessarily mean that he or she will faithfully represent and advocate for youth issues, nor does it satisfy the requirement of engaging youth in the peace process, a point raised during the consultations. To further demonstrate, a youth interviewee noted that although there were young faces in the delegations of conflict parties during the 2018 Stockholm peace talks, they only represented the interests of their parties as opposed to those of youth or the general public. He continued to explain that young partisans who are elected by their parties to attend these high-level meetings have no real agency in choosing which issues to advocate for; therefore it is unlikely they will advance the interests of young people when it does not serve their parties’ interests. As opposed to gender-based identity, which is mostly static, youth identity is temporally situated, which might explain why young partisans are more likely to prioritize advancing their political careers over advocating for youth rights and interests.
The research findings also show that even independent youth and young peacebuilders might not be seen as representative enough by the larger youth constituency if certain conditions are not met. One of these conditions is having an adequate knowledge of youth-specific issues and needs. Some research participants complain about the lack of a mutual agenda or plans for youth advocacy groups as well as the lack of understanding of youth issues among young people themselves, including those who are part of civil society structures. Yet they stress that youth representatives at the higher tracks of the peace process should be able to speak about issues facing the diverse youth constituencies, including the disabled, rural youth, young mothers, young fighters, and Muhamasheen.
To obtain this knowledge, those representing youth issues at the Track II process should maintain a sustained engagement with diverse youth groups at the grassroots level, which is yet another condition highlighted by the research. The essence of these consultations is to ensure that Track II policy briefs and recommendations are informed by the concerns and opinions of all young Yemenis. However, as might be expected, it is impossible for youth representatives at Track II level to engage directly with everyone. Hence, a system of representation can be further developed at the grassroots level where youth groups in different geographical areas can carry out surveys and polls to capture young people’s attitudes and opinions on a wide range of subjects that should be covered in peace negotiations, including the ceasefire agreement. Those youth groups should possess the capacity and funding not only to carry out the polling process but also to analyze and represent the data in a way that can make it useful for policy. As some research respondents stress, it is vital to include the diverse communities in this process, especially those often neglected by these types of projects, including but not limited to young women and men in rural areas, fighters, and Muhamasheen.
Engaging Youth in Local Ceasefire Structures
Young people could further support the ceasefire process by engaging in the local structures of the Ceasefire Support Mechanism (CSM). The CSM proposed by OSESGY is designed to facilitate dialogue and communication between the conflict parties to de-escalate and resolve incidents that threaten the ceasefire. In light of these objectives, connecting youth groups with the local CSM teams can provide the latter with an effective early warning support that utilizes youth’s social embeddedness in the community and the value they bring as part of the community network. Youth groups can help the local CSM teams identify the kinds of incidents that might threaten the ceasefire in their communities, such as cases of sexual violence, unlawful land seizures, and water disputes among others. Having these two lines of communication between the security actors from the CSM teams and youth groups can not only help to improve the performance of the CSM but also to ensure that security warnings quickly reach the communities that are most under threat. What’s more, engaging young people in this process can make them feel that their concerns and needs are being heard and responded to by the authorities, which might help alleviate some community tensions and lend the CSM popularity within the community. Although the exact structure of the local CSM is yet to be decided, it is likely that OSESGY will utilize existing institutional structures, such as the governorate-level Security Committees, or establish new ones in governorates where no such structures exist.
Furthermore, the CSM can capitalize on the accumulated experience of young Yemenis in local conflict mediation to further support the ceasefire. One recent example is the success of the youth-led, youth-focused group, Sheba Youth Foundation, in ending a years-long community conflict around access to water in Taiz, which involved creating a community council composed of governorate authorities and community members to jointly propose solutions.12 There are many similar experiences across the country, which shows the utility of engaging youth leaders in the work of governorate-level CSM. For example, when a conflict situation arises in the context of the ceasefire, CSM teams can collaborate with community members, such as women peacebuilders, political and social figures, tribal mediators, as well as youth leaders, to mobilize a community mediation response that prevents further escalation. A young interviewee points out that young people tend to be especially inventive and creative when it comes to designing solutions for these problems. She adds that even though some local conflicts might seem detached from the broader conflict or not even linked to the ceasefire, like water-related disputes, addressing these smaller conflicts could help build confidence and open space for political talks at the national level.
There are a number of strategic entry points for youth groups in the local ceasefire structures. Previous YPC research identified at least two entry points where either 1) OSESGY can facilitate youth groups’ engagement by directly connecting them with conflict parties’ liaisons in the local CSM committees; or 2) youth groups can utilize their connections with security actors and the governor (the head of the governorate-level Security Committee) to access the CSM committees.13 Either way, the inclusion of youth groups, and other civil society actors, in these committees can be further supported by having provisions mandating their inclusion in the ceasefire agreement. Although these provisions are not binding, their insertion in the ceasefire agreement can provide youth groups with a basis to negotiate their participation in the local CSM committees. Furthermore, youth groups are encouraged to build strategic alliances with other civil society groups (i.e., women’s groups, human rights organizations) to benefit further from their connections and increase their bargaining power in accessing CSM structures.
Preparing Youth for Participating in a Future Ceasefire
Young peacebuilders can play a greater role in the peace process, including a future ceasefire, if they are part of an organized youth movement. This requires mapping young peacebuilders in the different geographical areas in the country and connecting them under one or multiple interconnected networks at the governorate-level. Young peacebuilders in each governorate can then meet periodically to discuss the urgent issues facing their communities and disseminate this information across the whole network. Local non-governmental organization (NGOs) can further support the work of these networks by offering physical spaces for young peacebuilders to meet. This process can provide young peacebuilders with the opportunity not only to develop a collective identity and common youth agenda but also to mobilize and campaign to advance this agenda on a large scale. Furthermore, the presence of mobilized and informed youth groups in each governorate can facilitate youth engagement at the higher tracks of the peace process where these networks can not only better advocate for representing youth issues in the peace agenda but also share valuable insights into youth issues with actors at the higher tracks of the peace process.
Having these youth hubs can also facilitate Yemeni youth’s engagement with INGOs and NGOs that offer capacity building programs for young peacebuilders. It is important to develop these programs with the active participation of young peacebuilders and youth-led, youth-focused organizations to ensure they reflect youth’s needs. Some of the young peacebuilders interviewed pointed out a prevalence of workshops explaining the UNSCR 2250 and the peace process, but without having any practical utility. In one of these workshops, as described by one of the interviewees, the experiences of youth engagement in peace processes in other countries were presented without adapting them to Yemen’s context. This left participants with theoretical knowledge that was too general to incorporate into practice. Another problem identified was the abundance of workshops without follow-up action. For example, a young interviewee said that she attended a workshop on youth’s engagement in the higher levels of the peace process, yet participants never had the chance to apply this knowledge nor did they end up meeting the Envoy as promised by workshop organizers. Overall, research interviewees emphasized the need for practical training on conflict resolution, policy brief writing, and communication as well as information on the peace process, including the workings of the CSM.
Drawing on the experience of Yemen Model UN, organized by Adalah Foundation for Legal Development, simulation models are one of the best ways to integrate peacebuilding knowledge with practice in drafting policy proposals and discussing policy ideas.14 This youth-designed and youth-led project brought young peacebuilders from all governorates in Yemen into one room, scoring a high level of diversity among participants that is rarely seen in projects implemented across the country. To ensure sustainability, the young organizers established an alumni network where past participants can still engage with one another and lead activities in their own governorates. Likewise, a simulation model of the peace process can help young peacebuilders collaboratively engage with the key issues facing Yemen through a problem-solving approach.
Youth Mobilization Outside of a UN-led Peace Structure
Young Yemenis can still influence the peace process from outside the formal structure of the UN-led process, especially given the limited opportunities for their participation in it. Already, young women and men constitute the majority of the civil society workforce, whether as permanent staff or volunteers. Many of them are engaged in these activities as an opportunity to contribute to the peacebuilding process. Young artists and activists are also utilizing new strategies and innovative mediums, specifically on the digital fronts, to raise awareness and garner peace and national unity. For example, the political street art campaigns that once stormed Yemen’s streets have been strategically relocated to social media platforms, and even found new spaces in the streets of European cities.15
Yet, the scale of influence youth can exert on the peace process remains contingent on their ability to mobilize and campaign in a more organized manner to highlight certain issues and even apply pressure on negotiating parties. Admittedly, the rebirth of a new youth movement is met with many hurdles today, not least of which is the closing of political and civic spaces by armed groups across the country. To circumvent this challenge, many young interviewees underscored the importance of activating, or establishing, youth-led networks in the diaspora where members have more freedoms and financial stability to mobilize and influence policymaking around Yemen. A young interviewee drew on the experiences of Syrians in the diaspora to demonstrate the power of collective action in influencing international public opinion and policymaking, especially in securing support for Syrian refugees. Additionally, national and international civil society actors can facilitate the entry of Yemeni youth voices into spaces where their insights and expertise can be valuable, such as international policy forums. By participating in these conversations alongside policymakers and practitioners, Yemeni youth stand to benefit from both the knowledge transfer and the expanded networks.
Another challenge for youth mobilization is the political polarization and lack of an inclusive and unifying identity that can provide a foundation for developing shared values and grievances. Responding to this polarization, as one research participant suggests, will require creating inclusive media platforms accessible to young Yemenis of different cultural identities and political ideologies. One such a platform is ‘Shabab House’, which was founded by a group of young journalists to create content made by and for youth.16 This platform is one example of the few initiatives that exist outside of formal structures and that are gradually shaping youth narratives and activism in Yemen. Research participants also suggested shifting the focus of international donors and civil society towards activities that reach audiences across the political divide, such as music, art, comedy, and sports. A good example is the recent victory of Yemen’s soccer team in West Asia junior football championship, which “elicited a cascade of national pride across the country, from the north … to the south”. 17 Indeed, the historic victory of this young team transcended political divisions and reminded Yemenis of their shared identity and aspirations.
Hadil Al-Mowafak became a Yemen Policy Center Research Fellow in 2020. In 2015, she joined Mwatana Organization as a researcher of human rights violations, documenting cases of civilian casualties, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on journalistic freedoms. She holds a B.A in Political Science from Stanford University (2020).
Supported with German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), zivik Funding program
Hamza Mustafa. The Open Art Day campaign in Taawun Park, Taiz. The singer Hanin sings Taizian Mulalla. March 15, 2020.
- Paola Scommegna, ‘Yemen’s New Government Faces Long-Standing Demographic Challenges’ Population Reference Bureau, March 20, 2021. https://www.prb.org/resources/yemens-new-government-faces-long-standing-demographic-challenges/
- ‘United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250’, https://undocs.org/S/RES/2250(2015)
- ‘Negotiated Political Settlement Only Way to End War, ‘Turn the Tide’ in Yemen, Special Envoy Tells Security Council’ https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14552.doc.htm
- Jonathan Landay ,‘U.S. urges Yemen’s Houthis to stop military operations’ Reuters, February 16, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-usa/u-s-urges-yemens-houthis-to-stop-military-operations-idUSKBN2AG1WX
- Silvana Toska, ‘The Rise and Fall and Necessity of Yemen’s Youth Movements’ POMEPS Studies 29: Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen. https://pomeps.org/the-rise-and-fall-and-necessity-of-yemens-youth-movements
- Asef Bayat, ‘Is There a Youth Politics?’ Middle East – Topics & Arguments No. 09/2017. https://archiv.ub.uni-marburg.de/ep/0003/article/view/7219/7528
- International Crisis Group, ‘The Case for More Inclusive – and More Effective – Peacemaking in Yemen’ Report 221/Middle East and North Africa. 2021. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/221-case-more-inclusive-and-more-effective-peacemaking-yemen
- Thania Paffenholz, ‘Briefing Paper for the UN High-level Review Panel: Inclusivity in Peace Processes’ United Nations University Centre for Policy Research. 2015. https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:3220/unu_cpr_inclusivity_in_peace_processes.pdf
- Ali Altiok, Irena Grizelj, ‘We are Here: An Integrated Approach to Youth-Inclusive Peace Processes ’ Youth, Peace and Security/Youth 2030. 2019. https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Global-Policy-Paper-Youth-Participation-in-Peace-Processes.pdf
- Hadil al-Mowafak, ‘Engaging Women in Yemen’s Peace Process Requires Better Alliances’ Yemen Policy Center. 2021. https://www.yemenpolicy.org/engaging-women-in-yemens-peace-process-requires-better-alliances-and-networks/
- ‘Briefing to United Nations Security Council by the Special Envoy for Yemen – Hans Grundberg’ 14 October 2021 https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/briefing-united-nations-security-council-special-envoy-yemen-hans-grundberg-14-october
- Sheba Youth Foundation for Development, ‘Sanad Project to Support Community Stability’ 2021. https://www.shebayouth.org/en/sanad-project-to-support-community-stability/
- Hadil al-Mowafak, ‘Engaging Women in Yemen’s Peace Process Requires Better Alliances’ Yemen Policy Center. 2021. https://www.yemenpolicy.org/engaging-women-in-yemens-peace-process-requires-better-alliances-and-networks/
- Yemen UN Model. https://www.facebook.com/YemenMUN
- Al Jazeera, ‘Yemeni artist paints arms message for France with war mural’ November 19, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/11/19/yemeni-artist-paints-arms-message-for-france-with-war-mural; see also https://www.thehumanproject.art/
- Shabab House. http://shababhouse.net/
- The Washington Post, ‘Divided Yemen finds moment of unity in underdog youth soccer victory over Saudi Arabia’ 14 December 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/yemen-soccer-asian-championship-saudi-arabia/2021/12/14/f4d56ae6-5cb2-11ec-b1ef-cb78be717f0e_story.html