In Tunisia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of jihadists, Girl Scouts are helping combat extremism

Angela Singh

Young people in Tunisia face a very real risk of becoming radicalised. Many members of Les Scouts Tunisiens have friends and family who have left to fight for extremist causes, so the organisation wants to reverse the trend by promoting peace and tolerance

As the sun sets and the dust settles in the Borj Cedria campsite, Tunisia, groups of Girl Scouts from across the country are getting started on their summer camp activities. Among the trees a set of small white tents can be seen, encircling huddles of smartly dressed 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 described as “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 – 1,500 fighting in neighbouring Libya, and dozens of Tunisians fighting in Mali and Yemen.


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The growing numbers of young people travelling to fight 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 – is determined to do something about it.

Leaving 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 learned 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.

Tunisia now has the largest percentage of young people going to fight in Syria, including girls

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. Believe 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.”

Creative activities are an important part of the programme, say Les Scouts Tunisiens

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. Their methods include a badge programme called 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 heartbreaking. 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.”

We help young people find solutions themselves through arts and craft, or poetry and dance. It is helpful for them to put negative energy into something good

The aim of the project is to educate young people (Scouts and non-Scouts) about the dangers of engaging with terrorist organisations. It works 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 more than 100,000 people will benefit from the 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.”

Girl Scouts in Tunisia can earn a Spreading the Culture of Tolerance and Countering Violent Extremism badge

Open space

Providing an open space for young people to discuss difficult issues is paramount, to the 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

“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 making their voices heard, showing the true strength of young people, says the chair of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, Nicola Grinstead: “From targeted programmes on combatting 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.”

Girl Scouts at the Borj Cedria camp in Tunisia

Fatma and Khouloud say 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.”

 

Angela Singh is communications manager for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts


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