Leading Youth Advocacy Movements in the Wake of COVID-19

Nobody ever prepares you adequately for the long and winding road of leadership. One has to be brave enough to quickly rise to the challenge. For Evalin Karijo, her youth leadership role at Amref Health Africa – especially during this time of the pandemic – has put those skills to the test.

When Y-ACT (Youth in Action) was set up a few years ago, it was Amref Health Africa’s first fully youth-led initiative. It was designed for and by the youth. We knew that this was going to be exciting. Three years down the line, the energy and creativity of the youth has been more than anyone ever imagined. Y-ACT has been operating at a time when the role of young people in decision-making processes on issues that affect them is at its highest. Y-ACT is now one of the fastest-growing youth advocacy networks in the region. It also hosts the Youth4UHC Pan-African youth movement.

Before taking on the mantle at Y-ACT, I had spent two years in different leadership roles at Amref. At the time, I was the youngest project lead in the organisation.

Youth and COVID-19

During this pandemic, my experiences in adapting to changing times and leading teams to do so has come in handy.

The youth – in Kenya and across Africa – are likely to bear the biggest burden of the effects of COVID-19. We’re experiencing:

  • rapidly rising cases of unemployment,
  • inadequate access to routine health services,
  • and increasing cases of sexual and gender-based violence among vulnerable adolescents and youth.

A study that we recently carried out with youth highlights how the pandemic is affecting the youth in Kenya.

Youth are great catalysts of change

While the youth are vulnerable in this crisis, it’s inspiring to see their innovation. Young activists and youth volunteers are constantly generating ideas in their spaces to contribute to ending this pandemic.

Young people want to be at the forefront. They want to feel heard and consulted about policies, services and systems that are developed for them.

To amplify the youth voices during the pandemic, Y-ACT is

  • working with youth advocacy movements to co-create solutions,
  • lead teams to work with policy-makers,
  • and ensure that youth are meaningfully engaged in the fight to end the pandemic.

The #ChampionsKwaGround campaign, launched by Y-ACT, has been amplifying voices and efforts of youth and youth-led organisations. They are making incredible contributions in the fight to end COVID-19.

The campaign features youth movements who have taken to digital media to make their voices heard. They spur collective action on COVID-19 and on their priorities, at a time when everybody needs collective action the most.

The campaign also features young health workers on the frontlines of ending the pandemic. It has featured grassroots youth-led organisations leveraging their creativity through arts, murals, and music to create awareness on COVID-19 and influence youth to adopt positive behaviour change to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Other youth advocates at grassroots level innovate and develop income-generating activities including manufacturing home-made soap and masks, while ensuring that they stay safe.

Youth-developed resources and tools: COVID-19 and beyond

Y-ACT has further developed an innovative info-site. It is designed by Kenyan youth and for youth to meet their growing needs as the pandemic continues to evolve. The info-site provides accurate and up-to-date opportunities for young people. It includes:

  • online resources, webinars, and training programmes,
  • helpline numbers set up by the government and partners,
  • employment opportunities,
  • protection services,
  • and COVID-19 youth-related advocacy campaigns.

The team is now co-designing a virtual innovation lab that will provide a platform for youth to co-create solutions to deal with the post-pandemic future.

By focusing on the immediate needs of the youth and co-creating solutions towards a brighter post-pandemic future, Y-ACT is leading the youth to be in a position of authority and influence. This provides the ability to spur different outcomes based on youth creativity, and innovation, during this time of the pandemic.

Evalin Karijo is Project Director of Y-ACT (Youth in Action), an initiative of Amref Health Africa that aims to mentor, support and increase the capacity of youth advocates to influence policy and resource priorities in the areas of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

Black Girl Magic: 4 Activists You Should Know

Here in the US, February is Black History Month. As a young Black woman, this time of year has always brought excitement. Growing up, I would learn amazing, interesting, and resilient stories about those who came before me. In more recent years, I have found myself looking up to several Black girls and young women who are making an impact in the world right now. As Black History Month comes to a close, I want to acknowledge and share the work of a few of these amazing activists.

Mari Copeny, 13, also known as Little Miss Flint, is a clean water activist from Flint, Michigan. She has been advocating on behalf of her community for the right to access clean water since 2014, when the residents of Flint began noticing their public water sources contained extreme amounts of lead poisoning. Mari has been a consistent and persistent advocate for clean water justice. She strives to “make sure people don’t forget about Flint.” I admire Mari for her courage and unwavering commitment to justice, even when adults don’t rise to the occasion in support of the same goal.

Kheris Rogers, also 13, is an advocate working on a future free from bullying. In the first grade, Kheris was bullied for the color of her skin. But she didn’t let it get her down. Taking matters into her own hands, she worked with her sister to launch the #FlexinInMyComplexion campaign across Twitter. After being met with a flood of positive messages, Kheris has built Flexin’ In My Complexion into a brand. They have sold over 10,000 shirts and garnered the attention of a number of celebrities.

In an article with Teen Vogue, Kheris shares her experience of being bullied for her skin color. I can’t help but resonate with some of her feelings and thoughts because of my own similar experiences at school.

I applaud Kheris for standing up for herself, sharing her story, and providing opportunities for other young black girls to acknowledge the beauty of their complexion.

Naomi Wadler, 13, is a gun violence activist. She highlights the effect that gun violence has – particularly on young African American girls. You may know Naomi from the engaging, honest speech she gave at March for Our Lives in 2018. Since then, she has continued to show up for her peers in spaces across the world. Naomi has spoken at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Teen Vogue Summit, and most recently at Davos 2020. I admire Naomi because she is firm in her fight against gun violence, and firm in making sure that girls and young women of color are always brought into the conversation. She is a true advocate for us in this space.

Vanessa Nakate, 15, is a climate justice activist from Uganda, and founder of Youth for Future Africa and the Rise-Up Movement. Uganda is very dependent on its agricultural sector, and so Vanessa has seen the effects of climate change firsthand. I first learned of Vanessa earlier this year when she attended Davos 2020. She was (unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly) cropped out of a photograph taken with other (white) youth climate activists. The incident has sparked conversation around the inclusion of African voices in the climate justice space. Since it happened, Vanessa has been working to make sure other African climate activists are included at the international climate justice table.

Who would you add to this list? Let’s celebrate and raise the voices of these inspirational young activists.

Meet Alice: the feminist activist fighting for change

Alice Ackermann is twenty years old – she’s the youngest IPPF executive committee member. Her convictions on women’s rights and sexual health are visceral. “I am angry,” Alice says when asked what drives her, “but, it is a positive anger.”

An Early Introduction to Injustice

Alice was born in Strasbourg, France to a Jewish Orthodox family. “It was so obvious to me, from the onset, that my three brothers and I were not treated in the same way,” she says. She explains how the religious rites of passage – circumcision and bar mitzvah – gave importance to the different stages of her brothers’ development. For girls, there was nothing.

Her elementary education in a Jewish school was delivered in the same spirit: “we were considered lesser pupils.” She rebelled from a very young age – before she turned ten she was called a feminist as an insult. Alice says this experience shaped what still drives her today: a clear conception of the injustice that is done to women and their rights.

She was later, at her own demand, transferred to a secular school. Here, she was confronted with “something more violent.”

“When we were teenagers, my friends were sharing their experiences of being kissed without consent, and so many girls talked about being raped, but were not calling it that because it was so hard to put a name on it,” Alice recalls. After hearing about her friend’s experiences, she was determined to do something about it.

Starting a Feminist Club

When the local sexual and reproductive healthcare organization gave a sexuality education session at her school, Alice asked if she could join as a volunteer but was told she was too young.

Never one to be discouraged easily, Alice began organising demonstrations and awareness raising campaigns in Strasbourg on topics such as street harassment or the different shapes and sizes of vulvas.

When she started high school a year later, she created a feminist club and organized debates and open conferences on the history of the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) movement. That’s also when she started doing peer-to-peer sex education with other student members of the club. It was immediately effective: “the students felt free to ask questions, debate among themselves and talk about what they witnessed.”


Peer-to-Peer Education Works

Alice says the reason peer-to-peer education works so well has to do with empowerment. “When you are young and being discriminated against, you are very vulnerable,” she explains. “What happens with peer-to-peer is that people look at you and realise that they can take action and have knowledge too. Every time I do a session people come to me afterwards and say ‘you are so young, how can you be doing this? How can I do it too?’.”

The sessions worked so well that the local sexual and reproductive healthcare organization in Strasbourg got on board. They provided her with training and she became, at sixteen years old, their youngest volunteer. Alice continues to work as a comprehensive sexuality educator and she holds a paid job as a counsellor at one Le Planning Familial’s call centres in Paris.

SRHR on a Global Scale

At last year’s G7 conference, Alice worked with other feminist activists to influence the recommendations put forward by attending governments. “It’s hard,” she admits. “What’s harder is that, on the global scale, things don’t always appear to be changing for the better.”

She says during the G7 conference, American and Italian governments were not interested: “it’s really simple, if you talk about SRHR during a meeting, they just walk out. Donald Trump did it in Canada last year.”

As someone whose commitment to feminism is motivated by her own life experience, Alice is acutely aware of the importance of coordinating international advocacy to a grassroots approach. That’s why she’s not considering quitting counselling or peer-to-peer education anytime soon.

“I wish I were less of an exception, we need to have more young people involved in every level of the organization.” As a newly appointed IPPF executive committee member, she is on a mission to change that.

As a regional youth representative of IPPF and a member of several feminist organisations, Alice Ackermann advocates for women’s reproductive rights and youth empowerment at the national and international level. She’s also studying history at Paris University.

Shanshan He: Leading the Way for Young People

It all started when I hadn’t seen one girl for a couple of months. I was told her boyfriend had broken up with her because she was pregnant. Then the rumors started. “She borrowed money, she is probably going to take an abortion.” “She should be expelled from school.” “Her parents were angry and they beat her.”

I felt sad that young people weren’t being given the chance to receive comprehensive sex education at school and learn how to protect ourselves. I was outraged that when a girl found herself in these circumstances, people and society simply criticized her behavior rather than providing help and supporting her.

When I first participated in an event hosted by UNFPA in 2014, I was astonished to learn the tremendous number of adolescent girls giving birth every year – 7.3 million in developing countries. In China, 4 out of every 100 unmarried girls aged 15 -24 become pregnant, and almost 90% of those have an abortion.

Taking into account the huge population in China, I cannot imagine how many young people are suffering due to a lack of information and biased gender attitudes.

What youth leadership means to me

I started to volunteer at the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) – an IPPF Member Association – as a youth peer educator. I travelled to different provinces and cities providing training on sexual and reproductive health and rights to young people.

Next, I worked with Dance4life as an international trainer. I delivered Journey4life – a programme designed to build young people’s social and emotional competences so they are able to make healthy choices about their lives and feel confident about their future.

Through my interaction with different generations, I gradually realized that leadership is something that happens within yourself. You feel confident about your life, can see a different world, and are empowered to make changes.

Shanshan He, IPPF Board Member

Being a young leader at IPPF

20% of IPPF’s board must be represented by young people under the age of 25. I was elected to the board of my Member Association, the East and South East Asia & Oceania Region, and the global board. I attend meetings, participate in discussions and vote on the important matters – just as any other member.

My fellow youth representatives and I struggled when we first entered this unfamiliar territory, and had a difficult time finding our position.

Were we supposed to comment and participate solely on youth-related issues? Or should we engage with all the matters and discussions? When we speak, which hat are we wearing – young people who receive services, young activists on the ground, or youth leaders shaping the rules?

We learned that we could define our role. It was important to keep reminding ourselves of our focus and shifting hats to ensure more young people are truly represented.

We didn’t elect a chair among the youth representatives. Instead, the youth meeting is chaired by all the members in rotation. We also share the reporting and presentation responsibilities. This shared leadership approach avoids power dynamics and makes sure we don’t forget why we are all here.

Having been through the journey in IPPF, I realized that there is no point waiting until we ‘grow older’ to be a leader.

Leadership has nothing to do with age or gender. We are the leaders, now and in the future: here and beyond!

In Conversation with Christine Sayo

Christine Sayo is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate from Kenya. In this conversation with Girls’ Globe, she talks about feeling judged by others for simply talking openly about issues related to sex.

“The community looks at you as a deviant, as someone who is going against the norm.”

The good news, though, is that Christine is seeing a shift in attitudes thanks to globalization and increased access to information from different channels.

“Having information coming in from different sources has helped to destigmatize some of these issues around sexual and reproductive health in young people.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

If you liked this post, we think you’ll love our interviews with KingaWinfredScarlett, Natasha, Tasneem and Beverly, too!

Raising the Girl Agenda in Myanmar

We are still coming off the buzz of a really energetic and earnest Girls’ National Conference in Myanmar. Bringing together adolescent girls from across 70 diverse communities, the conference supported girls to work together and articulate an agenda to submit to regional and national lawmakers.

This agenda will be in the form of a letter. It will describe the barriers faced by girls in communities across Myanmar and the ways that law-makers can help to knock down these barriers so that all girls can achieve their full potential.

Last year, we made a big deal of International Day of the Girl – dedicating almost an entire season to it! We created opportunities for girls from all of our project communities to contribute directly to the development of an agenda for national and regional change – an agenda that would support girls’ development, education, access to safe work, freedom of movement, expression and beyond.

There were two key steps to making this work. Firstly, we held Regional Forums in 15 geographic hubs. Then, based on the outcomes from those events, we built the content and activities needed to make the National Conference both productive and deeply connected to the views and attitudes of adolescent girls.

In the lead up to those Regional Forums, our staff moved around the country with a mission to ensure every girl currently enrolled in our weekly leadership circles — over 3,000 girls — could attend a forum in her region. This would mean every girl could meet with others from nearby areas to discuss the specific, and sometimes invisible, barriers they share which can diminish self-perception and limit  choice.

Girls’ Regional Forums

The forums were focused on consensus-building activities. The day’s discussions were based on what we already knew about the situations of girls in different areas and the concerns girls have expressed to us in the past. In small groups, girls worked through various possible barriers to identify which applied most directly to their lives. They also discussed specific examples of times when, as a girl, they have encountered a barrier, been discriminated against, or felt unheard.

Girls’ National Conference

Immediately following the regional forums, we held our inaugural Girls’ National Conference in the City Hall of the ancient capital of Mandalay. The theme was “Girls, do you know you can fly?”  Attending the conference were 140 adolescent girls – peer-selected delegates representing nearly all of Girl Determined’s project communities.  Each spokesgirl shared on behalf of girls in her unique community, speaking out in a broader discussion with other girls facing sometimes similar and sometimes different issues.

Over two full days, the conference brought girls’ voices and experiences to the fore, while encouraging girls to act as change-makers in their communities and consider a different future for girls and women. Girls heard from one another and were introduced to basic concepts of civic action. Through consensus-building activities, they drafted a joint-letter expressing the concise needs of adolescent girls nation-wide.

Four main issues came out as the most detrimental to girls’ success in Myanmar:

    • inadequate or limited access to education
    • inadequate or limited access to health, nutrition, and sanitation needs
    • feeling unsafe and not knowing how to respond in dangerous situations
    • feeling unable to make decisions and express opinions about their own lives

We expect to see more girls taking issues into their own hands by expressing their needs in a structured way and demanding accountability by those in positions to make decisions.

Building On The Outcomes

Now that the conference has ended, two tasks remain.

Firstly, we will refine and revise the letter before the girls present it to members of parliament. A delegation of six girls from the conference will present the letter and express their concerns and hopes directly to parliamentarians.

Secondly, we will report back to ALL the girls who contributed their experience and insight on what their inputs have gone towards – both at the National Conference and during the direct appeal to lawmakers.

We will report back to all these girls through an article in our Wut Hmon magazine, and through a summary video of the National Conference.  This way, girls who weren’t at the national level gathering can see how their concerns were carried forth by their peers, and can experience the full process from regional forums to visits with parliaments.

We are excited to see how this plays out in the coming months, as girls’ voices resonate through Myanmar to create awareness of the hardships girls face, and of how they can rise up together.