By Arpita Das, Senior Programme Officer, ARROW (@ms_arpita)
For the past two years I have had the opportunity to work on young people’s issues in South Asia, in particular Pakistan, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Although I had been working on sexuality and rights issues for diverse people for a number of years, this was the first time I began to focus on specific concerns of young people in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Interacting with youth-led organizations and youth leaders and trying to understand the specific context they come from, while at times challenging, also provided me with the opportunity and space to think creatively and work collaboratively to give the project the shape it has acquired currently.
My work has entailed studying youth-led organizations within these countries, organizing envisioning meetings with young people to find out what they want to achieve and focus on in the area of SRHR, capacity building of young people on issues of SRHR, and facilitating online and face-to-face interactions and collaborations at the regional and national levels. Working with young people during my work here at ARROW has been a great space for praxis.
Here are 8 key things that I have learnt in this time:
While all young people are, as a group, marginalized, certain young people are marginalized further, including young people living in rural and remote areas, young people with disabilities, displaced and migrant young people, young people living on streets, non-heteronormative young people, young girls and women, etc. Working with young people therefore entails working not with one homogenous community but with different groups of people, of varying ages. This also led to the observation that the needs of young people may be varied and sometimes it is not be possible to capture them in donor priorities.
There is a misconception that information on sexuality and rights could make young people ‘promiscuous’ and that they are non-discerning and cannot decide for themselves. Young people, like older people, can take charge of their lives if they have access to relevant knowledge and information, and it is our job to enable their access to that knowledge. There is a need, therefore, for youth-friendly services that are safe, confidential and non-judgemental where young people can access services including counselling.
We need to talk to young people not because they will lead to greater productivity or because they will be in charge of nationbuilding, or because not talking to them on issues of SRHR may endanger their lives (due to early marriages, adolescent pregnancies and/or gender-based violence). These are definitely important reasons. But it is most important to talk to young people because they are rights-holders just like any other group or community of people. Supporting young people merely for the reasons cited earlier runs the risk of privileging a certain section of young people (the ones who are popularly believed to be “productive” or are natural leaders) thus leaving out many others who may not fit within these narrow categories.
Too often we in SRHR organisations talk to young people about young people’s issues in narrowly-defined ways. We need to discuss with them a variety of issues – sexuality and rights (as this would help them become confident individuals in charge of their lives and decisions), and other issues including engaging and participating in politics and development issues. In participating and understanding, they realize that in order to really contribute, it is important to understand intersectionality with poverty, with education, with employment, with the state and geopolitical concerns, with climate change, and with religious fundamentalisms and conservatisms. Well-rounded multidimensional knowledge on issues is important to do the specific work we want to do – in our projects, our organizations etc.
Young people’s organizations are often expected to work in ways that older people are typically more used to. We must realise that if young people do not have leeway to work independently, come up with their own original and creative scripts and make sense of the world and ways of working in their own ways, we will be doing ‘business as usual’ creating mere clones. Young people must therefore be given the space to be creative while learning important lessons on accountability – to themselves, their organizations, their colleagues, and most importantly, towards the cause of other young people.
Connecting young people’s movement to other movements such as the women’s movements, LGBTQ rights movements, people’s health movements, disability rights movements among others is extremely important to understand and comprehend the ways in which we are all connected to each other and to different issues, and to be conscious of how our contribution to different issues matters.
We must collaborate and build allies for any kind of advocacy work (on SRHR or otherwise). Collaborative action and work teaches us that while some issues may be different, there are vast similarities across countries. For an instance, in South Asia there are similarities in early and child marriage, gender-based violence, adolescent pregnancies, anti-sodomy laws and invisibilisation of young people in a number of issues. Collaborative regional and global level advocacy will therefore provide spaces for strengthening and learning. Work with young people also includes working and engaging on adult-youth partnerships and building synergies in working together.
There is never enough capacity building for young people or older people. We as development workers are constantly learning – about different issues, different perspectives on the same issues, and making connections to newer issues. As we learn, so we grow and so we contribute.
I have learnt so much from the young people I’ve worked with themselves – through listening to what works for them and what does not, experiential knowledge of working in different communities and contexts, creative ways of working together on issues, different ways of collaboration and advocacy on different sets of issues including on SRHR.
Towards this, ARROW has been doing work with young people building on a holistic understanding on a range of issues including gender, sexuality, violence, consent, sexual and gender identities, behaviours and expressions, examining power and privilege, child sexual abuse, disability and sexuality, issues and ethical dilemmas around sex work, local, regional and global advocacy and negotiations with policy makers and other stakeholders, examining one’s power and privilege and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), and, I have had the privilege and opportunity of working with different young people who have all contributed to my learning. Here’s hoping for more mutual learning and growing together!