Notions of victimhood and deviance dominate understandings of youth in transitional contexts, in large part because empirical research has focused on explaining the experiences of young people as either victims or perpetrators. In particular, alongside an extensive body of work that assesses the situation and motivations for the recruitment of child soldiers (Singer 2006; Gates and Reich 2010; Cook and Heykoop 2010) sits a substantial set of studies that explore the notions of youth deviance and savagery, specifically the impact and legitimacy of the youth bulge (Macdonald 2008: 140-141; McEvoy-Levy 2011: 167; Urdal 2006: 612-613; Collier and Hoeffler 2004: 569). Together, these literatures have served to solidify the position of the victim/perpetrator binary at the centre of current understandings of young people in transitional contexts.
Within this binary, youth are thus described, on the one hand, as children, passive and vulnerable to manipulation by adults. The underlying premise of this classification is that ‘children need special protection because they are innocent and dependent actors in an adult world’ (Schwartz 2010: 20). They are merely subjects and recipients of peace without the capacity to meaningfully engage in the social and political world. Indeed, the literature on child soldiers highlights children’s lack of agency and capability. For example, Kemper suggests that armies view ‘younger generations as cheap, effective, and obedient fighters’ (Kemper 2005: 8). That is, young people are perceived by other key stakeholders as submissive targets for recruitment.
At the same time, notions of deviance, savagery, and violence are also common classifications used to describe youth. Specifically, the literature on human security represents youth as a ‘security threat’ and a ‘demographic ticking-time bomb’ whose propensity for instigating violence and spoiling peace needs to be managed (McEvoy-Levy 2011: 167; Goldstein 2001: 11; Macdonald 2008: 140). Moreover, commonplace throughout the literature is the notion that mechanisms need to be implemented which address a perceived ‘crisis of youth’ (Peters 2011: 232-233). Namely, depictions of youth ‘frame young people in pejorative terms, as deficient... delinquent... or dysfunctional’ (Boyden 2008: ix). Yet as an examination of participation of youth in the Solomon Islands TRC demonstrates, the roles they play in conflict and transitional environments are more nuanced than these frameworks suggest.
This normative binary therefore is unsuitable for guiding our understanding of youth engagement in transitional processes. Indeed, the protectionist lens underpinning notions of victimhood is problematic as it relies on the belief that children lack capacity (Kemper 2005: 8-9; Schwartz 2010: 10-11). It promotes an image of young people as passive subjects, lacking the potential for agency often demonstrated by the youth demographic in post-conflict environments. Similarly, the deviance lens is troubling as it fails to capture the nuances of youth’s role in conflict and post-conflict contexts. Both representations of youth obscure the multitude of other, often overlapping roles that youth in particular take on in conflict and post-conflict environments: as peacemakers, mediators, survivors, activists, and storytellers (McEvoy-Levy 2006: 18-25; Helsing et al. 2006: 195-217; Senehi and Byrne 2006: 236-237). Yet the overreliance on these dichotomous classifications in transitional contexts and throughout the literature suggests an important piece of the puzzle for understanding youth engagement is missing.