Peace clubs – safe spaces for young Tunisians

Peace clubs are a way of helping young people to have better lives and learn resilience and leadership.

By Jem Newton

“I was tired of staying in my room doing nothing, not happy with how I was spending my life. I started going to the club because this town has no coffee shops where girls can go and relax together,” says Mayad, a teenager in the small Tunisian town of Enfidha.

Ahmed – not his real name – helps run a peace club near Tunis after leaving his home town near the Algerian frontier. Several former school friends got involved in dealing drugs across the porous border after finding no work locally; one was shot dead in a deal that went wrong. “I faced the same dilemma as them – deal drugs or find work elsewhere,” says Ahmed.

The casual drop-ins frequented by these young people are among a number of peace clubs set up across Tunisia in the wake of the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’. This popular revolt ended the brutal dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, sparking a decade of democratic ferment in the north African country.

Peace clubs are one of the responses of Tunisia’s robust civil society to crippling youth unemployment and national efforts to find non-violent solutions to Tunisia’s social problems. Young people under 30 constitute over half the population and, according to ILO data, unemployment among 15-24-year-olds is estimated at 38% and rising.

Job creation has also been sabotaged by a number of high-profile terrorist attacks at major tourist sites in Tunisia during the past decade that have killed off western mass tourism.

Across the Middle East, a staggering 41% of young people are NEETs (not in education, employment or training), making them vulnerable to criminal exploitation or radicalisation. Without civil society initiatives, some young Tunisians face a stark choice between economic inactivity and risking their lives, either by joining a criminal gang or jihadist group, or the ultimate gamble of a dangerous sea crossing to Europe in an overcrowded inflatable dinghy.

“Peace clubs are a way of helping young people to have better lives and learn resilience and leadership,” says Imen Belhedi, who in the past decade has helped set up peace clubs in 15 youth centres across Tunisia. The pilot project was initiated by Search For Common Ground (SFCG), an international peacebuilding ngo, with the support of Tunisian government ministries responsible for young people, and funding from the Canadian government (the clubs are now supported by the Ifrikya Center for Common Ground).

Belhedi says creating a strong sense of local belonging helps young people to resist the threefold pull of extremist ideology, criminal gangs and the lure of jobs in Europe.

A second initiative supported by SFCG has been to encourage emerging young leaders to engage in local affairs, through the establishment of Youth Leadership Councils in all of Tunisia’s 24 governorates. Council members develop skills in project management, advocacy, communication and dialogue, giving them the confidence and credibility they need to mobilize local people and engage government officials.

For teenagers like Mayad, peace clubs offer a safe space where they can talk about their hopes and plans for the future with others of similar age. Many of those who find acceptance there have experienced violence in their families, schools or neighbourhoods.

“Clearly there is more risk of young people becoming familiar with violence in communities where violence or extremism are commonplace, partly because of social stigmatisation. That is why we have focused on educating children from an early age to have shared values – respecting others and accepting differences,” says Belhedi.

Clearly there is more risk of young people becoming familiar with violence in communities where violence or extremism are commonplace, partly because of social stigmatisation. That is why we have focused on educating children from an early age to have shared values – respecting others and accepting differences.

The practical side of peace clubs includes training to make young people more employable, including skills in writing CVs and job applications and advice about what scholarships or trainee schemes are available.

“Most young people think finding work is about school qualifications or being good at sport,” says Hamza, who runs a peace club in Ettadhamen, a Tunis suburb. “When that fails they get disillusioned and give up. We help them become resilient and develop new strategies to find work.”

As a lawyer, he also teaches them their rights and duties. Recent protests and other civil society activities often bring young people into conflict with a heavy-handed police mindset that is a legacy of the brutal Ben Ali regime.  “We offer legal advice to young people; when they do not know their rights, police officers can take advantage – accusing them and humiliating them.”

In Ettadhamen, the peace club has also been involved in meetings with local officials and civil service organisations (CSOs) to discuss local needs and how young people can become more involved in the life of the community.

One of the fruits of Tunisia’s popular revolution was the creation of a progressive constitution giving citizens new rights and civil liberties, including religious freedom and gender equality. However, politicians failed to live up to their election promises of improving living standards and specifically to create more jobs, leading to frustration and angry, sometimes violent, protests.

Last year, President Qaïs Saied – elected in 2019 on a promise to end political stalemate – suspended parliament, blaming squabbling politicians for the country’s economic mess.

In the absence of a parliament, public and government policies and other major decisions are now implemented by presidential decrees.

Most pertinently, a draft law has been proposed outlawing foreign funding for CSOs.  As a result, the future for Tunisia’s peace clubs is uncertain. Most have been forced to scale down activities because funding has dried up.

“If the clubs are not able to fund activities, vital links with youth will be lost,” warns Belhedi. She still hopes for a second tranche of funds from Canada to continue the peace education project.

Belhedi says she believes in the upcoming generation of leaders, schooled by CSOs in local participation and governance: “The solutions will come from the next generation. They can rebuild the country, repair the damage, if we give them the chance to lead,” she says.

So Tunisia’s flawed but authentic democratic experiment is continuing – but only just.

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