Involve young people in decision making in times of conflict

By Audrey Inarukundo

Audrey Inarukundo is the Executive Director of RNJ+ in Burundi.

To mark the United Nations International Youth Day (12 August) and its theme of ‘youth building peace’, Audrey Inarukundo from RNJ+ blogs about the political and security crisis facing Burundi. She describes how the organisation works to promote the rights of young people living with HIV despite the conflict.

RNJ+ theatre group Members of the RNJ+ theatre group, which raises awareness of HIV and related issues in Bujumbura, Burundi. © International HIV/AIDS Alliance

What is peacebuilding?

Introduced in 1992 by the then United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the concept of "peacebuilding" refers to all activities undertaken – usually by an international contingent – as a result of a violent conflict in a country, with the aim of achieving lasting peace and preventing the return of hostilities.

At RNJ+, when we talk about peacebuilding, we imply the promotion of human rights because the absence of peace often leads to human rights violations.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 of the Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030 aims to build peaceful and inclusive societies and affirms that "there can be no sustainable development without peace and security". We strongly believe that in order to build inclusive societies the involvement of young people is key.

The case of Burundi

Since April 2015, Burundi has been facing a political and security crisis. Many young activists have lost their lives or disappeared. Countless human rights violations have been documented all over the country and especially in the capital Bujumbura.

At the heart of this crisis, a central figure emerges: that of the ‘young Burundian’. He/she has several faces: that of the victim of police repression or the young affiliate to the ruling party; the young unemployed person of working-class districts; or the civil society activist of the opposition; the engaged intellectual or the refugee. He/she is everywhere present and everywhere absent...

In post-conflict Burundi, 66% of the population is under the age of 25, and 65% of the labour force consists of people aged 20-24. They are ubiquitous, yet largely ignored by public policy. Growth, close to 5% in recent years, remains inconsistent and exclusive. By offering insufficient employment, it has not led to the reduction of poverty and first-time jobseekers make up a staggering 60% of the unemployed.

What about RNJ+?

Faced with this ongoing crisis, young leaders of civil society organisations cannot remain indifferent. More than ever, they must be active and contribute to community strengthening and social cohesion, and bring back Burundian citizens, especially youth, to their ideas and efforts on everything that is of general interest to the country, with a priority focus on sustainable economic development.

RNJ+, as a civil society association working to promote the rights of young people living with HIV, has also been affected by this crisis. RNJ+ works with groups of key populations such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and young people living with HIV who constantly face hurdles in their everyday life.

Sadly, during the crisis, RNJ+ saw several of its members leave the country because of insecurity. Because of their move, some of them suffered changes in their HIV treatment regimen, often without medical supervision, which in many cases has led to worse health outcomes for them. We almost lost a member because of this.

Some of the young people who chose to stay in Burundi have suffered human rights violations. Cases that have been frequently observed are those of young people being jailed and deprived of their antiretroviral treatment (ART) throughout their detention. Another common problem during the height of the crisis was young people having to stop taking ART because it was impossible to leave the house or go anywhere.

Despite this, RNJ+ has not given up. We strongly believe we should fight for the rights of our members. Thanks to the REAct tool, we were able to assist those who were imprisoned to be released. A young leader who did not leave the country during the crisis and who helped a lot, said:

It was not at all easy because being young at the time and fighting for the rights of others, we were considered as an enemy and sometimes we were also persecuted.

RNJ+ has also managed to continue working with health care providers to support young people living with HIV with getting medications when they cannot reach the supply sites. Another young person who has contributed so much to help his peers said:

I lived in a neighbourhood that was at the heart of this crisis, but knowing that there was someone who could not access the treatment because of the road blockades made me uncomfortable and many times I have risked my life to help others.