United Nations, Apr 13 (PTI) Young people are prime targets of extremist recruiters but they can also play leadership roles in fighting terrorism and creating greater opportunities for all, UN chief Antonio Guterres said here.

“I do not agree that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. More and more, they are the leaders of today,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres yesterday told an event titled ‘Investing in Youth to Counter Terrorism’.

He said nearly half the world’s population – 46 per cent – is 24-year-old or younger, with Africa and the Middle East having the highest proportions of youth.

“Violent extremist groups target and invest in young people because they are aware of their potential and their strong desire for change,” he said.

Recruiters and peer networks engage personally and individually with young people, tapping into their discontents, listening and offering alternative views and analyses.

He said they exploit grievances and use manipulative messages, conspiracy theories and lies, offering a twisted sense of purpose to disaffected young men and women. Extremist groups may also use digital technology to increase their reach across borders and cultures, the UN chief said.

“The tragic irony is that at the same time, young people often lose most from terrorist ideologies. They are targeted for attack at public events, in schools and at universities,” he said.

Guterres said that extremist groups promote an identity for young men that is based on violence and the policing of women’s roles.

“They thrive on repressive gendered identities and attitudes towards women and girls, denying them their rights to education and participation in public life,” he said, adding that young women of Iraq and Syria have been routinely targeted by terrorists for sexual enslavement, forced marriages, exploitation and abuse.

“The use of gender inequality by these groups is deliberate and strategic; our counter approach must therefore include a focus on empowering young women,” he added.

Guterres underscored that if nations are to counter terrorists’ manipulative messages they must engage with young people on their terms. “Which is why it is so important to bring young people into the conversation, to enable them to express themselves, to listen to them, invest time and resources in them, and empower them to realise their goals,” he added.

“If we are serious about prevention, and particularly about preventing conflict, we need to be serious about engaging with and investing in young women and men,” the UN chief said.

“We need their involvement and commitment, if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), take effective action on climate change, and create a safer and more peaceful world,” he said.

The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, said a vast majority of youth are peaceful, and are not in danger of participating in violence.

“On the contrary, young people’s resilience is transforming local communities while combating extremist movements,” she said.

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.