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).

Innovative Solutions to Sexual Healthcare in Switzerland

Noemi, 24, is the youth network co-founder and coordinator for IPPF’s Member Association, Santé Sexuelle Suisse/Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz. Here, she shares her experiences and thoughts on the impact COVID-19 is having on sexual healthcare and young people, and talks about how the crisis can offer opportunities.  

The Impact on Sexual Healthcare  

Under normal circumstances, I’d be conducting strategic planning and advocacy work. I would be planning and implementing actions, campaigns and events for the Youth Network, and coaching, motivating and training youth volunteers.

The COVID-19 situation is impacting and intensifying my work. We have to focus on the most essential and basic needs concerning SRHR, which are now under threat. We have had to communicate as quickly as possible that abortion services are still available in all Swiss hospitals. The abortion rate dropped tremendously at the start of the pandemic, because women were afraid to go to the hospitals or didn’t know that abortion services are still provided. We contacted all the family planning centers that provide services concerning sexual health. We wanted to gather best practices in these times concerning the provision of contraception, including emergency contraception. We are closely monitoring the situation as best as possible to intervene in the media or get in contact with hospitals and pharmacies as soon as possible to keep people updated on services.

Getting Creative on Social Media  

Next to the monitoring and political work, I started a creative initiative during the COVID-19 isolation. With our Youth Network we created an artistic competition on our FB and Instagram platforms on issues such as masturbation, menstruation, coming out, female genitalia, and pornography.  

The aim is to enhance creativity and allow young people to reflect on sexual and reproductive health and rights in a creative way. The aim was also to offer something fun and positive in this difficult time. As a prize, we are awarding sex toys from a small queer sex store in Switzerland.  

The project has a lot of success; there are a lot of young people in Switzerland participating and thanking us for this initiative. Next to that we inform the young people in Switzerland through our social media channels about sexual health services which are still in place.  

A winning entry from the social media art competition @judendnetzwerk


Opportunities in a Crisis  

I’m sincerely hoping that this crisis helps to find sustainable solutions to problems and gaps in the health system, particularly concerning sexual and reproductive health, which have become visible during the pandemic.  

We could use this crisis for good and advocate for better access to abortion care. It should be made possible to consult via telephone or get medical receipts with online forms. Moreover, the temporary management of medical abortions – with mifepristone and misoprostol – at home during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy following a telephone or electronic medical consultation, rather than having to take the first dose at a health facility, like it is implemented right now in the UK, could become a long-term solution to improve the access to abortion.  

Women’s health and reproductive rights don’t end during a pandemic and we must continue to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and improve health and gender equality for all during and after the pandemic.  

A crisis like this offers an opportunity for innovative and sustainable solutions. It also provides a reclaimed sense of shared humanity, where people realize what matters most: the health and safety of their loved ones, and by extension the health and safety of their community, country and fellow global citizens.  

And basic health and safety requires comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care.   

Noemi is a representative of IPPF’s European Youth Network; YSAFE.  Subscribe to IPPF’s newsletter for more engaging content about sexual healthcare. 

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!

All Teachers Need Mandatory Training on FGM

Written by Katrina Lambert (18) and Caitlin Moore (18) – Youth For Change UK members

Ever felt like decision makers aren’t listening to young people? That our voices are ignored and belittled in society? We certainly do sometimes. And we’ve decided to make some noise about it.

We are members of Youth for Change, a global network of youth activists who aim to tackle gender-based violence.

The best way to create positive change is through young people working together to make a difference. We are the ones affected – we should be the ones influencing policy.

Over the last few years we have been tackling the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is a form of violence against girls. It can result in a lifetime of pain, psychological problems and difficulty in childbirth.

Around 125 million girls have been cut worldwide. An estimated 137,000 girls and women live with FGM in the UK.

In 2017, our research found that 90% of young people surveyed said that learning about FGM as part of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would help to protect and empower them and their peers. This was the focus of our campaign to get FGM in the RSE curriculum.

Therefore, we were incredibly excited when it was announced that Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would be compulsory in every school in England as of 2020. Education plays an absolutely crucial role in young people’s lives (as two school students, we can verify this 100%).

Having FGM taught in schools is our chance to take a step forward in ending this harmful practice.

At Youth for Change, when the Department for Education released the online curriculum consultations, we engaged with our networks and communities to strengthen the voice advocating for FGM to be included.

We fed this back to the Department for Education when a group of us met with senior civil servants last year. We also met with Carolyn Harris MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, to discuss the importance of empowering young people through educating them on FGM.

As a result, questions about FGM being a priority area of the new curriculum were raised in Parliamentary Questions, to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP.

In February 2019, it was celebrations all round. We heard that FGM was to be included as a topic in the curriculum. However, as tempting as it may be, we can’t stop now and pat ourselves on the back.

Yes, we have taken a monumental step in the direction towards eradicating FGM. However, in order to ensure that the new curriculum can appropriately educate and empower young people on the issue, teachers must feel equipped.

This is why Youth for Change is calling for mandatory training for all teachers on FGM.

Our research shows that 94% of young people feel school staff don’t know enough about FGM. If there is any chance of the the new curriculum guidance achieving its fullest positive impact, teachers must be trained.

When students are aware of the issue and feel confident that their teachers understand it, then they will naturally feel more protected and comfortable in opening up conversations. This is essential in increasing reporting and saving the lives of thousands of young women and girls across the UK.

Mandatory training for teachers will ensure that every pupil in the UK gets equal access to the FGM education they deserve, regardless of what part of the country they happen to be educated in.

The benefits of training teachers in FGM are not limited to students. It will also empower teachers to feel equipped to take on their role.

In fully understanding their legal responsibilities, including mandatory reporting, teachers will able to confidently safeguard their students and signpost the correct support. Training is absolutely essential. Without it, the huge changes to the curriculum will not be able to support and educate young people.

What can you do?

Get involved with us as we continue to press for standardised, mandatory training for teachers on FGM! Find us on twitter @YouthForChange. And while you’re here, support all of the other amazing activists in our network, such as IKWRO, who are calling for FGM to be tackled earlier on in education.

We’re not going to stop making noise. We need to ensure that the education young people receive reflects what they want and need to learn. We very much hope that the Government will listen to our calls to introduce mandatory training. Together, we can move even closer to eradicating FGM in the UK once and for all.

Like this post? Try these…

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.