"If we can build up youths' capacity to resolve
conflict today then we might not only affect the current conflict but also
prevent violence from breaking out in the future," an aid official said.
Abdou Sarr, World Education's director of the programme, told IRIN, "No one is immune to the call of children. If they can now make a stand for peace here, then it might work."
USAID has teamed up with non-governmental organisation (NGO) World Education to teach conflict-resolution skills to 18,000 teenagers across schools and colleges in the Ziguinchor and Kolda regions of Casamance where the conflict continues to be played out.
The rebels of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) are fighting for an independent Casamance, and violent incidents continue to take place in violation of a December 2004 peace accord.
In mid-March, the MFDC abducted 16 villagers in Bissine, 60km from Ziguinchor, before releasing them five days later.
The peace education programme aims to teach teenagers how to analyse the roots of conflicts and develop negotiation skills, as well as advocacy and campaigning skills, to help them spread their messages to their communities.
According to Sarr, children are encouraged to put their learning to the test by organising peace rallies, running peace campaigns, or simply setting up football matches and cultural events involving different communities to try to strengthen inter-community ties.
"Usually it is the parents who educate their children in the need for peace, but here we are turning it around," Mamadou Goudiaby a teacher in the programme at Ziguinchor Academy, said.
Experts admit that not all adults will listen to children, but Ed Garcia, a long-time peace education and specialist currently with the NGO International Alert, told IRIN children's influencing role increasingly features in political rhetoric.
"Just look at the United States 2008 primary elections. Caroline Kennedy, Senator Casey and countless others have said it is their children who have shaped their political views and activities."
Tendeng Moussa, a student in the programme, has lost relatives to the Casamance conflict and wants to break what he sees as the prevalent cycle of revenge.
"We will try to educate our parents so they can forget the painful damage they've been through", he said. But he wants to go further: "We must also try to make the MFDC rebels themselves understand that the youth of Casamance are now out to preach peace and non-violence."
Garcia thinks children can make a real difference in shaping the politics of conflict. "Children can broaden the peace constituency by lobbying people to vote for the right leaders, and this can make a real political impact." He continued: "I've seen the results of this in Colombia and the Philippines."
Political problems, political solutions
However, some education specialists worry that such programmes, while positive, risk overplaying the power of children and masking the need for concerted political solutions.
"This programme is a good idea… [but] children are not the only driving force for peace - only when they age can they play a strong role in resolving it," said Oumar Diatta, an education specialist who teaches children affected by conflict at a centre in Ziguinchor.
He continued: "The programme can affect the resolution of the Casamance conflict… [but] the basis of the problem is political and requires a political response.
In the end, rather than just children, the state must also get involved."
Peace talks between the MFDC and Senegalese government have been on hold since 2005.