Preventing Violent Extremism With Life Skills and New Opportunities

Speeches Shim

Thursday, May 26, 2022
Gulnaz Yermekbay

When Gulnaz Yermekbay gave her commencement speech, she wanted to drive home the practicality and value of what she had recently learned: 

“Every skill that I have learned in this program helps every day to communicate effectively with my community, my team, my friends, and family.”

However, this was not the outcome she expected when, three months earlier, she began the USAID-funded Life Skills Training Program at a technical college in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. “At the beginning, when I joined the program, I was not very optimistic or hopeful about it.”

Her sentiment was shared by 17-year old Dilnara Omarova (not her real name) who participated in the same program at another technical college in the city of Aktau:

“Frankly speaking, I didn’t expect anything particularly special from this project and was fairly skeptical about it. But then, what happened turned all my expectations upside down. The program not only expanded our vision, taught us new and important life skills, but also brought us all very close together.”

Both Gulnaz and Dilnara are from marginalized and underserved communities in Kazakhstan that have experienced significant radicalization over the past decade. These communities have proven susceptible to extremist ideologies, which is why they are critical target locations for USAID’s efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. The Life Skills Training Program provides practical life skills, career advice, and psychosocial support for at-risk youth, all of which have proven effective in reducing vulnerability to violent extremism and strengthening the resilience of disadvantaged youth in at-risk communities. The three-month curriculum was first piloted in 2020 with 70 students in a remote, mono-industry town in central Kazakhstan. Based on the success of the pilot, in 2021 the program was expanded to 150 students at three technical colleges in Nur Sultan, Aktau, and Almaty. The curriculum has also been successfully adapted for a summer camp in Uzbekistan for younger participants. 

Dilnara came to the program at a difficult moment in her life, having faced discrimination because of her religious practices, social troubles at school, and a lack of support at home: 

“I don’t know why all this is happening nowadays, but I face issues at school and the workplace because of my hijab. While a hijab is just a garment connected to my religion, people’s reactions to it get in the way of my development and education – despite my hard work and accomplishments. In all other respects, I believe that young people in Kazakhstan have a lot of opportunities, but many, unfortunately, do not use them. This makes me so upset. If people have roads open to them, they should go and take those opportunities. But no, people are often unmotivated.”

Reducing a perception of marginalization and injustice is a critical component of USAID’s work to prevent violent extremism (PVE) in Central Asia. USAID research has found that individuals from marginalized communities who have experienced injustice and a lack of religious freedom are more vulnerable to extremism, so targeting these at-risk communities and engaging underserved youth is a central focus of USAID PVE programming. Evaluations conducted at the end of the course showed that participating students were more likely to believe that they have the power to change things they do not like, more likely to feel they are included in decision-making discussions, and less likely to feel there are barriers to their success. These paradigm shifts improve students’ ability to constructively manage discrimination and marginalization. The success of the Life Skills Training Program demonstrates that equipping at-risk youth with the tools and strategies to deal effectively with the challenges of life can help them feel more engaged and respected.

To share the results and lessons learned from the second iteration of the Life Skills Training Program, USAID’s local partners hosted a roundtable in February of 2022. With over 100 educators, college administrators, and government representatives in attendance, the project team presented best practices and introduced a Life Skills Training Handbook. The handbook was developed for educators, government bodies, and youth programming practitioners, so they can use a life skills approach when working with at-risk youth.

For youth like Gulnaz and Dilnara, their personal growth has inspired them to share their experience with others. Dilnara has not only recommended the program to everyone she knows, but she also wants to learn more and discover new opportunities:

“Because of being in the course, I checked out the USAID Instagram page and found out more about what kind of projects USAID does. They’re just constantly doing important things, all over the world! It seems to me like this is hugely generous – that USAID engages students here free of charge, giving us new opportunities.”

Last updated: May 26, 2022

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