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Development Studies Association conference 2022: key take-aways on the complexities of understanding and promoting opportunities for adolescent voice and agency

The Development Studies Association 2022 Conference was hosted online by University College London on 6-8 July. The theme was ‘Just sustainable futures in an urbanising and mobile world’, with contributions exploring what justice and equity look like in a post-pandemic world affected by an escalating climate crisis. Speaking to this theme, GAGE convened a workshop on Friday 8th July on the topic Intersectional approaches to adolescent voice and agency: gender and participation in the context of multiple intersecting crises’.

A key theme that emerged from the contributions was the question of how to explore adolescent voice and agency – and in particular what participation by young people in research about their voice and agency should look like. Reflecting on the workshop, discussant Pooja Singh of AGIP notes ‘adolescents are not a homogenous group. Their situation, priorities, and aspirations are diverse based on their realities.’ Research on the voice and agency of young people and adolescents must pay attention not only to their gender and age, but also to the interplay of these identities with the broader socioeconomic context in which they are growing up and the social networks within which they are embedded.

These dynamics shape adolescents’ decision-making in complex and sometimes unexpected ways. Workshop participant Rose Pinnington observes that ‘voice and agency are conditioned not only by gender and age, but the physical and social environment in which young people spend the majority of their time. Mozambique’s cities (where her research was undertaken) may offer opportunities to advance the economic empowerment of young women through better access to services, economic opportunities and expanded social networks. But the research indicates that for adolescent girls and young women living in the poorest neighbourhoods, accessing these opportunities remains curtailed by constraints placed on their agency, including their ability to make decisions about their movement outside of the home or neighbourhood. These constraints are shaped by their urban environments, including a lack of spaces for adolescent girls and young women to socially interact with other young people, and their sense of insecurity when travelling outside of their neighbourhoods. As a result, the economic empowerment of adolescent girls and young women is heavily conditioned by ‘the invisible boundary of the bairro’, where they are unable to access all the city has to offer.’

Elizabeth Dessie’s work also finds that ‘being young and rural in the city embodies both challenges and opportunities’ – and that these are being complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting on her research, Elizabeth explains ‘through my research in Addis Ababa, where I interviewed rural-urban migrants living and working in the Ethiopian capital in 2018 and 2022, I have found that the gendered dynamics of urban life as experienced by adolescents and young people often translate into livelihood strategies that are informal and socially embedded, such as adapting the choices they make to meet everyday needs. These strategies and the social and economic spaces accessible to marginalised youth, shaped largely by social norms pertaining to gender, age, social class and rurality, have become even more precarious in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the internal conflict.’

Participatory research tools can and must recognise the multiple social identities adolescents and young people occupy and how these affect their voice and agency; these identities may also shift over time and in different social locations, making a participatory approach in which young people are involved at all stages and levels even more important. For example, Tony Roberts’ and Jo Howards’ research highlighted opportunities for addressing this through the ‘participation cube’ which acknowledges the obstacles to participation faced at different intersections of social identity. This also has clear programmatic implications; in the context of her research in Mozambique, Rose Pinnington observes that ‘MUVA, (a programme to support novel approaches to female economic empowerment)’s relational approach to support agency through teaming young women up with mentors has promoted their self-efficacy and autonomy. During the pandemic, the ‘emergent agency’ of these girls and young women has been applied in civic engagement, particularly through information-sharing within their communities.’

Finally, as emphasized by Pooja Singh, inclusion of adolescent and young people in decision making spaces will only truly be meaningful when persistent issues of power dynamics, especially when it comes power and resource sharing, are openly addressed and such inclusion is only just and equitable when they tackle the barriers experienced by the most marginalised.

Next steps

There were some questions which we were unable to fully address in the workshop, and others which the workshop triggered. Our panellists engaged eloquently with questions of gender and age in the context of urban change; but something we recognise requires more attention is the question of how other social identities such as rurality, citizenship status, socioeconomic background, class and disability shape opportunities for voice, agency and participation?

We are also interested in building on the observations made about the challenges of participation at different levels and in different for a to think critically about how voice and agency are connected to adolescents’ development of political identity – given that this is key for active citizenship and participation in building a more just and equal world.

On a conceptual level, the complexities of adolescent participation in the context of severe poverty and inequality also lead us to ask how we can integrate theories of political subjectivity and civic engagement, which largely focus on young people in the global North, with the material conditions and lived realities faced by adolescents and young people in lower- and middle-income contexts?

These are key questions with which our forthcoming textbook ‘Young people in the global South: voice, agency and citizenship’ will seek to engage. Contributions to this book include case studies that explore adolescent and young people’s voice and agency in relation to wider socio-political change processes in a variety of lower- and middle-income contexts. With the upcoming Global Summit for Adolescent Wellbeing planned for 2023, as well as the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum (ECOSOC) and the midway point of the UN Women Generation Equality Forum’s 5 Year Plan to accelerate gender equality, these findings also have major global policy relevance for youth and adolescent empowerment and engagement.