DDR programmes have increasingly been conducted in contexts where the majority of former combatants are youth between the ages of 15 and 24. Yet, this group has historically been poorly served by DDR programmes. Youth fall between the legal categories of child (those under age 18) and adult, and their specific needs have not always been well addressed by programmes designed for adults or younger children.
Providing for the specific needs of youth is vital for the success of DDR programmes as well as the larger peacebuilding process, as youth are an important force for change and renewal within a country. Youth have the potential to display great resilience and to play meaningful roles in reconciliation and recovery efforts. Yet, because of their age, youth are easily ignored by the authorities after a conflict. Youth are vulnerable to violence, disease and other illnesses and their exclusion from decision-making processes and structures can lead to difficulty in reintegration. This in turn starts a cycle of poverty and frustration that makes youth vulnerable to criminality and re-recruitment into armed forces. Because of this vulnerability, effective and appropriate planning for youth participants becomes all the more important in order to make the most of their positive potential and reduce the risk of their becoming a security threat.
The successful reintegration of young ex-combatants and boys and girls aged 15 to 18 who are associated with armed forces or groups depends largely on their successful transition to productive activities. Planners need to design programmes that channel youths’ ambitions and aspirations towards constructive education and work opportunities. However, making DDR efforts responsive to the needs and aspirations of youth is an enormous challenge. In the destruction of economies during and after war, young people tend to be the first to be laid off and the least likely to find work. Education and training services are often disrupted for long periods, and young people can become idle and frustrated if they are only able to do subsistence work in the informal economy. Additionally, while opportunities that are appealing to youth should be provided in socio-economic reintegration, training in areas that do not respond to a specific need in the market should be avoided. The feeling of frustration that caused some youth to take up arms only increases if they cannot find a job after reintegration. Counselling and career guidance are important in this context. Assistance during a post-training phase is also crucial for successful reintegration of youth.
In addition to their socio-economic reintegration, it is also important that young ex-combatants find meaningful roles in terms of decision-making and status, having a stake in the post-conflict social and political order so that they support rather than undermine it. With this in mind, young men/boys and women/girls should be explicitly involved in the decision-making structures that affect the DDR process, to allow them to express their specific concerns and needs, and to build their sense of ownership of post-conflict reconstruction processes.