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International Youth Day

Disadvantaged youth turn away from gang violence through skills' training in northern Madagascar

In the first of a series of articles to mark International Youth Day on 12 August, we focus on an ILO-funded project that has been supporting efforts to curb urban violence and restore peace in the coastal town of Diégo Suarez.

Feature | 06 August 2018
DIEGO-SUAREZ (ILO News) - Located in northern Madagascar, the town of Diégo-Suarez has many tourist assets, thanks to its extraordinary setting, its beaches and old colonial buildings that lend it a special charm. But a few years ago, the city was confronted by organized gangs known as foroches, or “wild ones,” who created conditions of insecurity and threatened to undermine the tourist industry.

“The problem here wasn’t trafficking in hard drugs, like in some Western countries, but rather rivalries between neighbourhoods, usually over girls who were going out with members of the group across town,” said Diégo-Suarez’s police commissioner Roger Moratamby. The problem was made worse by the consumption of khat leaves, a locally grown plant that has a euphoric effect and reduces hunger pangs and fatigue, but is addictive and considered a drug.

Within a few years, the situation had become much worse, with a rise in muggings and stabbings. “Women didn’t dare go out wearing jewellery anymore,” recalled a shop owner in Rue Colbert, the city’s main street.

Things got so bad that authorities and local civil society decided to act. “We realized that the response to the crisis should not be only about punishment but should also include an educational component,” says Commissioner Moratamby. With ILO support, a project was set up to offer training to jobless youth.

Breaking organized gangs

Vial Lucet, who heads a local shipyard – the Société d’études, de construction et de réparations navales – also manages the training of young people. It’s a demanding task: When they first show up at the company, many of the young people still have ties to their gangs, and are often found, during daily searches, to carry knives in their pockets. Everything is done to break the gang spirit. Sports activities never pit one gang against another.  Instead, the teams are set up by the trainer, forcing youth to play with their former enemies and against their fellow gang members.

“It’s therapy by skills transfer,” says Lucet, who is passionate about what he is doing. “We provided three months of training to 100 young people aged between 16 and 18 in 2016, and another 100 in 2017.” The trainees choose from among seven training activities: electro mechanics, combustion engines, sheet-metal work, computer graphics, carpentry, boiler pipe work and stone masonry. The centre is very well equipped and has experienced instructors.

“Many of the young people dream of having skills but, without support, they cannot realize that dream and so they seek refuge in the local gang,” the director says. Trainees receive vocational training, as well as instruction in citizenship and civics, entrepreneurship, life skills, English, dance and sports.

A project like the one the ILO has been supporting in Diégo-Suarez made it possible to contribute to a significant improvement of security conditions by creating job opportunities for disadvantaged youths."

Christian Ntsay, former Director of the ILO Madagascar office, now the country’s Prime Minister.
These activities are coordinated by a steering committee made up of local dignitaries and civil society members who work closely with the technical committee in charge of implementing the project. Beneficiaries are recruited during awareness-raising activities conducted in cooperation with community leaders.

“There is no such thing as a hopeless case”

“We believe that there is no such thing as a hopeless case,” Lucet says, pointing to a young trainee who had been caught a few days earlier carrying a knife. It’s a challenging task in a town that has only two social workers who can provide psychological follow-up. Lucet also counts on the support of former trainees who become “big brothers” the others look up to.

The local prison director is also involved in the project. He authorized us to interview about 15 minors held in a special section of the prison, who agreed to talk with us. Here again, poverty is the root of the problem. One of the young detainees told us that he was a repeat offender because he felt he was better off in the minors’ section of the prison than on the street. Another detainee, Amadi, 17, said that he had joined one of the town’s gangs, called Ligne rouge, at the age of 14 “to be like everyone else in the ‘hood”. He would like to steer clear of the gang when he leaves prison and get some kind of training.

The outlook for his fellow detainee, Ali, 17, a former member of the Togo gang, is much bleaker. Also a repeat offender, Ali is serving a 12-year sentence. He told us he was doing time for stealing police uniforms, but a prison officer later told us the sentence was for attempted murder with a knife.

Despite limited resources, the ILO project has made spectacular progress. “We have noticed a significant drop in the level of delinquency,” says Commissioner Moratamby, whose strategy combines prevention and regular patrols in sensitive neighbourhoods as soon as night falls.

Ezidine Amady Moussa, technical adviser for youth affairs in Diana region, is also pleased that calm has returned to the city. “This improvement can only encourage tourists to return to our lovely town.”

From “foroche” to ship builder

At the Diégo-Suarez bay, José Pouely is a picture of restored serenity. A former member of the foroches, he has a history of petty crime. He often fought over girls or simply to “beat the enemy”. One day, however, he attended an awareness-raising activity and realized that his life could change for the better. He had not forgotten that his deceased father repaired and built lakanas, the local traditional fishing boats, and so he chose to be trained in carpentry and is now learning the basic skills he needs to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Pouely is proud to show us the boat he has just built, a 5-metre vessel that has already been bought for 2 million ariary. His dream has come true and he’s left the foroches. He still needs more tools to work, but he is pleased that he was trained. And now when he gets together with former members of his gang, it is not to commit a crime, but to go fishing and earn a bit of extra money.

“The urban violence that affected Diégo-Suarez reflected the sense of uneasiness for hopeless youth,” explains Christian Ntsay, former Director of the ILO Madagascar office, now the country’s Prime Minister.

“Poverty reduction remains a priority for Madagascar. Just consider two figures: 92 per cent of the country’s population lives in poverty, and one in two young people are unemployed. A project like the one the ILO has been supporting in Diégo-Suarez made it possible to contribute to a significant improvement of security conditions by creating job opportunities for disadvantaged youths, which were very limited so far,” he added.

“Creating decent work opportunities for disadvantaged youths by training them and offering them new skills is an efficient way to fight against poverty. As we celebrate International Youth Day, this example shows how innovative projects involving all local stakeholders can contribute to bring skills and jobs to disadvantaged youth,” concluded Sangheon Lee, Director of the ILO Employment Policy Department in Geneva.