As the sun sets and the dust settles in Borj Cedria campsite, Tunisia, groups of Girl Scouts from across the country are just getting starting on their summer camp activities. Amongst the trees a set of small white tents can be seen, encircling huddles of smartly dressed Girl Scouts. As they sit on the floor, chatting excitedly, it’s clear these girls mean business, with some discussing gender-based violence and others focused on how to tackle extremism.
Tunisia has been called “the biggest exporter” of jihadist fighters to date, contributing an estimated 6,000 of its nationals to groups in Iraq and Syria. There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 fighting in neighbouring Libya, and dozens of Tunisians fighting in Mali and Yemen.
The growing numbers of young people travelling to fight and those vulnerable to radicalisation has become a major issue in Tunisian society. Having seen a number of boys go to fight, including family members, Les Scouts Tunisiens – part of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts - are determined to do something about it.
Fleeing to fight
“My cousin left to fight in Syria. We were shocked when we heard the news,” says Girl Scout Leader Khouloud, 24. “I saw him a month before he left. I could see a change in him. He was posting a lot of religious stuff on Facebook, but we never expected him to leave.
“In Tunisia, people often say poverty is one of the main causes for people leaving to fight, but I think there’s more to it. My cousin enjoyed all life had to offer. He wasn’t suffering. He was working hard. We learnt he had been brainwashed. He was told he was living a life of sin and he would go to heaven if he lived a certain way.
“When he arrived in Syria, he found people were killing each other. It had no relation to our religion. He fled Syria as soon as he could, but was caught in Germany where he was placed in jail. He’s still there and we don’t know when he will come home.”
Khouloud is working with fellow Girl Guide Leader Fatma, 28, to try and tackle the issue, from across the country.
Following the 2011 Tunisian revolution, Fatma witnessed young people leaving in search of what they believed was a better life.
“After the revolution, people changed within themselves. Many were unable to accept the differences in other people. To them, everything felt wrong.
“Six years on, things haven’t changed. Tunisia now has the largest percentage of young people going to fight in Syria, including girls. A large number of boys leave school early, so they can fight. Be lieve me when I say, they are fighting on the frontline.”
For Fatma, the issue remains a lack of education.
“The education system in Tunisia is still weak. Classes don’t tackle religion, or religious extremism, so young people have no other option but to form their own opinions. It is easy to brainwash them.”
Education is key
Together, Fatma and Khouloud, along with a host of other Girl Scouts are working hard to educate girls and boys across Tunisia about the dangers of extremism and the damaging impact it can have on their lives, through its badge programme, Spreading the Culture of Tolerance and Countering Violent Extremism.
Wahid Labidi, Chairperson of Les Scouts Tunisiens, says:
“When the problem of religious extremism emerged, Les Scouts Tunisiens felt it could do something about it as we’d seen a small number of boys leave. It was heart-breaking. We wanted to help young people see there were other options: they could join our Movement, rather than be part of this violence. Our peer-to-peer project is going from strength to strength, and we’re working hard to empower young people to join the programme and do something positive for their community and society.”
The aim of the project is to educate young people (Scouts and non-Scouts) about the dangers of engaging with terrorist organisations and to raise awareness of the importance of cultivating tolerance and resisting violent extremism through activities, such as open discussions and creative outlets. It is hoped over 100,000 people will benefit from this project.
Khouloud says: “Scouts, both boys and girls, run workshops for young people, in a bid to provide a safe space where they can debate these issues. A range of activities are available, dependent on age, gender and region.”
Providing an open space for young people to discuss difficult issues is paramount to this project says Fatma.
“When we talk to young people during our Scouting activities, they become very emotional. Some tell us how they want to go and fight, as they feel no one else can help them. We listen and tell them that if they find an activity such as Guiding and Scouting, it can help solve these issues.
“We invite people who fought in Syria to come and talk about what life is actually like when they leave. I’ve seen the impact it has on young people and how they react when they find out how horrible it really is. It’s good for them to make decisions based on real experiences.”
“We do our best to help young people find solutions themselves. This is done through arts and craft or poetry and dance. It is helpful for them to put negative energy into something good.
Strength of young people
In Tunisia, and across the world, Girl Guides and Girl Scouts are taking positive action and making their voices heard, showing the true strength of young people, says Chair of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, Nicola Grinstead:
“From targeted programmes on combating extremism and leading projects on ending violence against women, Girl Guides and Girl Scouts are driving community development, equipping young people with the life skills and experiences they need to participate in society and building the world that we want to see for our young people and their future.”
For Fatma, Khouloud and all their Girl Guiding and Girl Scouting friends, the project is having a huge impact – and they’ve never been prouder to be part of the Movement.
“Running this project has taught me so much,” says Khouloud. “It’s particularly important to me given what my cousin went through. When I meet young people feeling troubled, my advice is to: “Talk to your family and your friends. It’s important to think about your decisions. Once you vocalise them, they might change.”