Supportive family systems pivotal to preventing African youth recruitment into violent extremism

Supportive family systems pivotal to preventing African youth recruitment into violent extremism
Illustrative Image - A boy walks through a market on the first day after the conclusion of the referendum vote January 16, 2011 in the town of Yambio, south Sudan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Positive bonds with parents, extended family and caregivers can deter young people from joining violent extremist groups. 

In 2021, around 180 million children lived in conflict zones in Africa — the highest number of all regions globally. And the World Health Organization has estimated that just over one in three women in Africa experienced sexual or physical domestic violence, or both. Africa and South-East Asia topped the regional rankings.

Women and especially children, are often the most affected by violence and instability. In Africa, this is compounded by poverty, discrimination, poor housing and basic services, and historical trauma due to high levels of ongoing conflict. 

These stressors weaken familial bonds, increasing pressure on families, guardians and caretakers. Exposure to trauma can have long-term developmental and behavioural implications for children and adults, which if unaddressed, can be passed down to the next generation. Parents and guardians may struggle to care for themselves or meet their children’s emotional and physical needs. 

Trauma in a child’s formative years contributes to what is known as adverse childhood experiences. These include abuse, neglect, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, divorced or separated parents, crime and incarcerated family members. The more adverse experiences a child has, the greater the effect on their health and well-being, and the greater the chances of social and behavioural difficulties in adulthood. 

Many parts of Africa are now affected by violent extremism. High exposure to adverse childhood experiences increases the likelihood that children and youth are targeted for recruitment by terrorist groups who typically exploit vulnerable communities. 

One example is the Almajiri system in Nigeria, where children are sent by their parents to religious institutions to be educated, or orphans living on the street join the system. There they often face neglect and exploitation, such as trafficking and substance abuse, or are recruited by violent extremists. 

In Mombasa on Kenya’s east coast, street children are highly susceptible to recruitment into criminal gangs and violent extremist groups, such as al-Shabaab. The Mombasa-based Human Rights Agenda reported that 60% of the city’s street children were radicalised, and 90% belonged to criminal gangs.

Research in Africa by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that perceptions of childhood unhappiness and lack of parental involvement increased the likelihood of a person joining or being recruited into a violent extremist group. The lack of access to education — a form of neglect — directly correlates with vulnerability to radicalisation. 

The UNDP study also shows that people place great importance on the influence of family and friends in deciding to voluntarily engage or disengage from a terrorist group. This suggests that strong and resilient familial connections could deter an individual from associating with violent extremists.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 promotes peace, justice and strong institutions. As a unique social institution, the role of the family is crucial. Healthy familial relationships are considered the foundation of inclusive societies in Africa and globally. Communities across Africa are family-centric, with great importance placed on bonds that include the extended family, guardians and teachers. The family should be considered an essential vehicle for achieving peace and stability.

A 2017 paper by Futures Without Violence explores the nexus between trauma and radicalisation. Factors that increase the resilience of children and youth are a strong relationship with at least one competent adult, feeling connected to a positive role model or mentor, and belonging to a community. 

Productive parenting has been linked with preventing violence in general. Research published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in 2022 showed how positive parenting in South Africa led to happier, safer children. Programmes involving non-governmental organisations, caregivers and community members fostered non-violent, warm relationships between parents and their children. 

Strategies to prevent violent extremism in Africa should prioritise positive parenting as part of wider initiatives to reduce adverse childhood experiences and promote community stability. Families and caregivers must be included in interventions related to SDG 16 and the goal of achieving inclusive and cohesive societies. 

Considering that children and youth make up the majority of Africa’s population, they must be protected from conflict and other adverse experiences. This will not only help them withstand exploitation by armed groups and violent extremists but enable them to play active roles as promoters of peace. 

Next year will mark 30 years since the UN declared 15 May the annual International Day of Families. As Africa continues its struggle with conflict, insecurity and violent extremism, the need has never been greater to prioritise positive parenting, caregiving and family relationships as a pillar of violence prevention. DM

Isel Ras, Research Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.


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