Krista Riley turns and reaches for Akello Betty Openy's hand. The two teenage girls, one Canadian the other Ugandan, smile, then slip easily through the crowd outside an auditorium at the United Nations.
In a few minutes, they will stand onstage and explain to several hundred adults why policymakers should consult young people like themselves if there's to be any real hope of ending the brutal and deadly conflicts brewing around the world.
"There's a lot of creativity, a lot of insight that can be brought to it," says Krista. "Often, adults try to do the same things that they've done in the past they don't always work."
With the energy, determination, and innocence that young people bring to a seemingly intractable problem, a small group of teenagers from around the world gathered last week at the UN to launch an international youth movement. But this is not the model UN of generations past where students mimicked their seniors to learn about what they do. Instead, this program is designed for the benefit of the international policymakers themselves, who for the first time in recent history are trying to harness the power of the young to bolster international peace efforts and improve their own decisionmaking.
"Young people share deeply and instinctively the ideals of the rights and well-being of other children instinctively, they relate to that," says Olara Otunnu, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict. "What better way to use that connectedness of young people than to link up young people from this country [and others] to young people in Sierra Leone, in Kosovo, in Somalia to work for the same cause."
The teens' first chore is to raise international awareness among their peers about the toll that war takes on millions of children each year. And they hope to do it with the help of the United Nations. The Office of the Special Representative, in conjunction with the Muhammad Ali Center, Global Kids, and several other international groups, has launched the Schools for Global Peace Program. It provides a high-school curriculum based on stories and role-playing that vividly illustrates the pain and chaos inflicted upon children and their families caught up in armed conflicts.
Once a school finishes the course, it will be designated a "Global Peace" school and be linked to others around the world.
"We believe that this will become an international movement with 10,000 schools around the world all discussing, reading, and becoming active," says Laura Miller, a New York City educator who designed the curriculum. "So far, children in Mexico, Germany, and the US have read and raved about the first book in a series of eight [that are part of the program]."
An estimated 300,000 children under 18 in more than 30 countries are currently fighting in either government or rebel organizations, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. And those wars have claimed the lives of more than 2 million children and left more than 6 million injured or permanently disabled over the past decade.
The lives of war-affected children, as Betty Openy can attest from her own experience, can be terrifying. She was raised a refugee in a poverty-stricken camp where jobs were scarce and healthcare even rarer. In school, she lived in constant fear of being abducted for sexual servitude or forced into military service.
"The pain of children caught in war around the world is difficult to imagine. Without help, the next generation of leaders are doomed," Betty says. "But solutions to these problems are in reach."
Betty cofounded Gulu Youth for Action, which is working for the education and protection of children, particularly girls, in the northern part of Uganda, where at least half of the residents are refugees.
It's exactly that kind of energy and enthusiasm that Mr. Otunnu hopes to tap. Betty is one of eight youths who are working with him to develop a youth advisory council with young representatives from both war-ravaged and peaceful countries. The group will advise and help shape the policies of the Office of the Special Representative.
It's one of several UN programs that are designed to embolden and empower young people. There's the Youth Network, which links schools and churches in Western countries with those in various war zones. A media program called the Voices of Children gives youths video cameras to tell their own stories as well as to produce educational and health programs.
"In situations of war, one of the hungers I see in the faces of so many young people is the absence of any information entertainment, music, drama things we take for granted, they don't have," says Otunnu. "The Voices of Children is trying to fill that vacuum."
From the young people's perspective, the growing number of programs represent an excellent beginning. But they're just that a start. "Our aim here is to build a youth-to-youth network that can create face-to-face exchanges with youth in war-affected countries," says 20-year old Alexandra Meierhofer of Switzerland. "We found that youth listen more to youth than to grown-ups. We can tell them that you don't have to turn 30 to be able to change something, or be wise, or come from the US to change something. We can do it ourselves."