Girls Globe blogger Eleanor takes a critical look at youth participation, and urges the development sector to recognise young people for what they do - not just their age.
Youth For Change recently published a Storify to take a critical look both at what worked well and what could be improved in terms of youth participation at the Women Deliver Conference 2016. We said that despite a phenomenal leap forward, the risks of grouping young people together as a homogeneous group became evident: “We believe young people have to do more than just be young to be inspiring.”
From a personal point of view, after assuredly cheerleading the case for young people to be included, consulted and listened to within the development sector since my teens, I have recently found myself struggling over a stumbling block I didn’t see coming.
As I’ve moved from student to graduate whilst continuing to advocate and campaign on issues I care about, I’ve found the contrast in how I’m perceived in the different contexts of my life increasingly difficult to understand. On one hand, in any professional environment I find myself in I am, of course, held to the same standards as the rest of my colleagues. On the other, in situations where I’m placed as a ‘young advocate’, rather than a member of staff or an intern, those standards become more flexible.
During my first event as a brand-new member of Youth For Change, I was congratulated on being an ‘amazing advocate’ for ending FGM before I had done anything more noteworthy than filling out an application form. I desperately wanted to be an amazing advocate for ending FGM, and I hoped one day I would be, but I certainly wasn’t at that moment. I was just young, and I felt like a fraud.
Of course, it is undeniably frustrating when experience, or lack thereof, is seen to correlate directly with competency - I think anyone who’s filled out any kind of job application in the recent past would agree. I don’t believe that age or the number of years in employment should be the sole indicator of anyone’s ability. At the same time, I believe just as strongly that my age shouldn’t excuse me from anything, and that I should have to prove my worth before it is assumed.
To talk about young people en masse risks doing a disservice both to those who are exceptional and those who are…less so. It’s crazy to suggest that every single person born from 1986 onwards is carrying out inspirational work and contributing to positive change in the world. It is statistically impossible. Yet for the many who are, their brilliance is dimmed in a standardised sea of ‘youth’. For those who aren’t, they are lured into a false sense of security that simply doesn’t translate into working life, or in any other sphere of life for that matter.
In lists like Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30’, age serves in addition to breakthrough, achievement or success. It is an extra reason to go “wow!”, not the reason. Adele is 27 years old. Usain Bolt is 29. Imagine how strange it would sound to describe them as ‘youth’ first, and a singer/athlete second. Malala’s work always leads, followed by the killer footnote that says, “oh, and by the way, she’s also 18”.
This year, Women Deliver did a wonderful and important thing. Hundreds of young people, each of whom had proved that they deserved to be in that conference center, were given an opportunity to participate in the global movement to secure rights and health for all women and girls. Why, then, were some simplified to “inspiring young people”, when others of the same age were “Inspiring speakers” or “inspiring activists”?
I am still as convinced as ever that young people are central to the global development agenda. But if youth participation is going to be truly meaningful, we have to ensure that youth is one thread of an advocate’s story, not the central plotline. Generously dishing out the words ‘amazing’ and ‘inspiring’ to anyone born post-mid-80s makes them sound disingenuous when attached to the many who very much deserve those labels.
Women Deliver 2016 was, in the words of the inimitable Katja Iversen, a “refueling station of inspiration and motivation, action and energy”. It gave a glimpse of how effective meaningful youth engagement can be, but it also reminded us that we must all continue to work on it thoughtfully, and with a critical glance over every now and then.
Eleanor attended Women Deliver 2016 as a Girls' Globe blogger. Girls' Globe is a women-led online magazine and a global network of individuals and organisations focused on the rights and health of women and girls. Read more posts from the conference here.