Nothing about us, without us: lessons from our work with young people

What has Oxfam learnt from four years of working with young people on their rights to healthcare, education and sexual and reproductive health (SRH)? Imogen Davies, My Rights, My Voice Programme and Communications Officer, identifies key learning points for development organisations seeking to work with young people.

It is often said that young people are the future. But what does that mean for young people in the present? While those in positions of power are happy to bequeath them the problems of tomorrow, young people are largely excluded from the decision-making processes which affect them in the here and now. Despite the increasing numbers of young people around the globe – over 3 billion of the world’s population of 7.3 billion are now under the age of 25 – young people’s voices are too often not being heard..

But, given the opportunity, young people can be a powerful force for transformative political and social change today as well as tomorrow. For Oxfam, the question is therefore less why and more how should we work with young people?

Our My Rights, My Voice (MRMV) programme is an interesting test case. Over the last four years we’ve worked with youth from Afghanistan, Georgia, Mali, Niger, Nepal, Pakistan, Tanzania and Vietnam to support them to claim their rights to education and health services. Here’s an overview of
some of the lessons we’ve learnt, (more detail in these case studies): 

Youth campaigners take part in Participatory Video training in Surkhet District, Nepal. Credit: Jean-Luc Blakey/Oxfam.1. Let young people lead 

As a youth campaigner said to me recently, ‘nothing about us, without us’. A core feature of MRMV has been a shift in thinking from implementing programmes for young people (as beneficiaries and recipients), to supporting projects led by young people, and working with young people as co-creators, collaborators and partners. It has been important not to make assumptions about youth needs and to select and develop staff and partners
who are able to work with young people meaningfully.Young people have been supported to lead at every stage of the programme cycle; from the design process and the identification of relevant issues, through to implementation, monitoring and evaluation 

2. Create safe spaces

A key strategy of MRMV has been the development of safe spaces which allow young people to learn about their rights, develop the skills and confidence to speak out, and engage with peers, allies and power-holders. Youth Advisory Boards have been established in most MRMV countries, while young people are engaged more widely at local and national level through youth groups, student councils, school clubs and online spaces. Holding discussion classes has been particularly successful in building the confidence, agency and leadership skills of young women. 

A forum theatre performance in Surkhet District, Nepal. Credit: Imogen Davies/Oxfam3. Respect difference

Without recognition of difference and power dynamics, confident and more privileged young people can easily dominate programme activities and processes. 

MRMV has been careful to engage with marginalised youth, for example by working with ethnic minority children in Vietnam, but we have also recognised the dangers of only working with young people from similar backgrounds. We have had to challenge ourselves to actively reach out to disadvantaged rural and urban youth, including those out of school. 

4. Address gendered power dynamics 

MRMV has prioritised the engagement and leadership of girls and young women at every stage of the programme, and the majority of youth groups now have female leaders. However, a Gender Review of the programme in 2013 showed that youth participants did not always recognise unequal power dynamics in their own groups and relationships, and therefore risked perpetuating existing power imbalances. If youth activists want to transform unequal systems, and not merely imitate them, they need to address the deep structural causes of gender inequality, while simultaneously building the
confidence and skills of girls and young women and actively promoting their participation and leadership. 

5. Enable influencing

Raising awareness on health issues in Say, Niger. Credit: Moussa Abdou/Oxfam

With capacity-building and training, young people can be powerful advocates. Young people are those best placed to identify their own issues and mobilise their peers, while governments in countries with bulging youth populations are often keen to be seen engaging with young voters. 

The youth activists we have worked with have been careful in their approach, involving all political parties to avoid bias or co-option, conducting power analyses, and working with their communities to ensure their support. Risk analysis has helped them to identify and manage threats and seize new opportunities even in the most difficult contexts. They have also engaged in a collaborative relationship with power-holders, rather than constantly targeting them with advocacy demands – in Mali, this has led to government ministries seeking support and advice from youth campaigners on two key national events.

6. Put safety first 

Leading change processes is empowering for young people, but can also put them at risk. Advocacy work may leave young people open to government harassment, while those campaigning on sensitive issues such as sexual and reproductive health rights and gender equality sometimes face a backlash from conservative members of their communities. Involvement in programme initiatives can also put young people at risk of abuse.

Young people’s safety and protection is always paramount; safeguarding and child protection procedures must be built into programme management from the start. Particular caution should be shown when working in online spaces, where activities and content are often harder to monitor.

7. Foster innovation

MRMV is one of Oxfam’s most innovative and creative programmes. The engagement of young people, who are often more open to embracing different ways of working and new technologies, has allowed for innovation and exciting programme strategies. Fun and creative initiatives, such as Participatory Video, PhotoVoice and Edutainment have raised
youth voices in powerful new ways, while new technology and social media have enabled young people to raise awareness more widely among their peers. 

The conservative nature of some country contexts has resulted in some of the programme’s  boldest and most innovative work, with new channels such as a nationally-broadcast soap opera, online comedy sketches, e-learning platforms and SMS services changing attitudes to sexual and reproductive health. 

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Campaigning on International Children’s Day in Zugidid, Georgia. Credit: DEA/O
Youth campaigners take part in Participatory Video training in Surkhet, Nepal. Credit: Jean-Luc Blakey/Oxfam 
A forum theatre performance in Surkhet District, Nepal. Credit: Imogen Davies/Oxfam
Raising awareness of health issues in Say, Niger. Credit: Moussa Abdou/Oxfam

Author: Imogen Davies
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.