Originally posted on the BBC Media Action Insight blog by Alasdair Stuart on November 3 2016 - Alasdair Stuart shares the challenges faced by young people in Tanzania, Somalia and Kenya and outlines how they themselves think the media can help.

“Life becomes better for just a few – your neighbour owns ten cars but you don’t even own a bicycle.” (Arusha, Tanzania)

“Adults, the government, businessmen and parents have no confidence in us to bring new ideas or trust us in doing thing.” (Puntland, Somalia)

“Extremist groups are an option for some young people because they are fed up with the hardships of life.” (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) 

These are just some of the things young people in East Africa told us when we asked them about the challenges they face. Speaking to over 400 young people over the course of 42 focus group discussions held in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, it became clear that they had to contend with an array of difficult feelings, perceptions and environments.  

What do young people think are the main obstacles in their lives?

Many young people find themselves caught in a prolonged period of stagnation (‘waithood’) between adolescence and adulthood. They are unable to reach the milestones of adulthood, such as moving out of the parental home, having a secure job, enjoying financial security or being in a position to support a family of their own. Young people told us they struggle to get ahead in life because of unemployment, a lack of access to education, poverty, corruption and nepotism.

Not only do young people feel unable to achieve what society expects of an ‘adult’ or realise their own ambitions, they also feel disenfranchised and frustrated with the political system. They also have the sense that they are largely excluded from decision-making processes, neglected by politicians and unable to do anything to address the issues they face because there are too many barriers in the way. These factors all combine together to fuel a crisis of youth identity.

Within all three countries, there was also evidence of a growing sense of an inter-generational ‘divide’. Young people feel that the older generation deny them access to opportunities, stop them having a say in how society is run and generally look down on them, while some older people view young people as apathetic or ‘trouble-makers’.

Our research also revealed societal divisions that exacerbate feelings of marginalisation and discrimination and fuel ‘us and them’ narratives. For example, young Somalis reported having to navigate a number of divisions, based on tribes, clans and different regional identities (Somaliland, Puntland and South Central). In Tanzania, there were rifts between supporters of the ruling and opposition parties. Kenyans experienced splits along religious, ethnic and tribal lines, with Muslim, Somali and Somali-Kenyan communities feeling marginalised and discriminated against.

In addition, young people live in societies in which violence (including criminal violence committed by gangs, political violence, ‘mob justice’ and gender-based violence) is increasingly normal. We were told that violence was common in communities and that young people were frequently exposed to it – and sometimes participated in it.

What solutions are young people pursuing and why?

In such environments – where economic and political opportunities are limited – violence is a ‘way of life’ for some young people. It allows them to carve out an identity and an income, in a context that otherwise frustrates such efforts. Life was seen as so difficult for some young people that their peers understood why they might turn to ‘illegitimate’ means of improving their situation, such as criminal gangs, illegal migration or ‘violent extremist’ groups. These options represented some of the only viable, rational and financially prudent ways of getting ahead.

Interestingly, almost all young people felt that the key reason someone would join a violent extremist group would be either economic (such groups provide ‘employment’ and far greater financial reward than is otherwise available) or due to dissatisfaction with the political system. Young males were thought to be more vulnerable to becoming involved in violent extremism than females, as they were seen to place more value on financial security and employment. Religion was not thought to be a significant motivating factor for most East Africans who join an extremist group.

What alternatives do young people think the media can offer?

To an extent, the media contributes to and perpetuates some of the challenges facing young people. Modern communication and global media have created ‘unrealistic’ lifestyle aspirations that many young people feel they fail to meet. Some of those we spoke to also felt that media coverage often lacks balance, scapegoats certain groups and glamorises violence, further worsening the societal divisions and normalisation of violence mentioned above.

The young people we spoke to would like the media to feature positive but realistic role models of young people who have managed to find legitimate routes to success. In a similar vein, they would also like the media to provide useful and practical information to help them take advantage of the opportunities that do exist; for example, by offering advice on their rights, accessing employment support and how to start a business. Ultimately, young people want a media that provides concrete advice, rather than just rhetoric that fails to address the obstacles they face.

They want a media that gives them a voice, helps them to have their concerns addressed and holds leaders accountable for improving their situation. They want the older generation to understand their challenges and involve them in addressing them, and they think the media can play a role in making this happen. Can the media play a role in fulfilling these expectations, and contribute to a more positive future for East African youth? The answer remains to be seen.                

Read more: how should media development organisations like BBC Media Action engage with information responses to violent extremism?

Alasdair Stuart is a Research Manager at BBC Media Action. Alasdair managed the research across East Africa for this project, and currently manages BBC Media Action’s portfolio of research across Somalia, Kenya and Zambia. 

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Image credit: BBC Media Action

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