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International Youth Day: Creating safe spaces

Sunday marks 19 years of celebrating International Youth Day (IYD), designated by the United Nations as the day to recognise the many accomplishments of youth and youth-focused initiatives worldwide, as well as to call on governments and organisations to play an active role in removing the barriers youth face. This year’s IYD theme is Safe Spaces for Youth, chosen with the purpose of ensuring “the dignity and safety of youth” in their daily interactions and activities, as well as fostering greater civic engagement.

But this is no small task, particularly for adolescent girls, who daily face a mountain of inequities. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have exposed underlying systemic power and harassment issues – from Hollywood to the halls of government, in classroomson factory floors, online, and along city streets. In over 70 countries, anti-LGBTI laws remain in place, a few of them resting on the penalty of death. Then there’s child marriage, where 23 girls under age 18 are married off every minute, and the fact that over 130 million girls are out of school for a range of reasons but many of them because of gender bias.

So, how are we to tackle a confoundingly systemic problem?

It’s going to take a lot more effort, but there are a number of studies and projects that are shedding light on the possibilities and giving us hope for change.

For example, two years into a mixed-methods longitudinal research program, the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) consortium has reviewed “63 studies on the empowerment impacts of 44 girls’ or youth development clubs [and] found substantial evidence of the positive impact of girl club programmes that provide safe spaces, awareness raising, skills training and peer support on girls’ self-confidence and self-efficacy (Marcus et al., 2017).” GAGE found that nearly 75 percent of these programs changed gender-discriminatory attitudes and practices.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya women refugees, who escaped from years of discrimination and more recent violence and rape in Myanmar, desperately sought a safe haven. In response to the influx of Rohingya, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency, established a program designed to create a safe space for women in the camps – one in which they could build coping strategies and try to move beyond a challenging and recently very dark past. One of the IOM operations officers, Megan Denise Smith, said of this program, “The spaces play a vital role in ensuring women and adolescent girls have somewhere they feel safe to express themselves, access important information, develop social networks, and strengthen their  resilience to find positive ways to cope in the future.” Unfortunately, according to Plan International, this is not the case for the Rohingya women outside of Cox’s Bazar, where those interviewed describe a “prison-like” environment – which is all the more reason to pay attention to the work of IOM inside Cox’s Bazar, where “girls still have hope for the future.”

The UNFPA has also focused on safe spaces during a refugee crisis, specifically those fleeing Syria. With the help of partners in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the UNFPA established women and girls safe spaces (WGSS), designed to empower women and girls impacted by the crisis. In their 2015 report, the UNFPA laid out a list of key objectives for safe spaces, as well as guiding principles for making them successful. The objectives focused on support for women and girls through social networks; skill building; and access to psychological, medical and legal information and services. And the guiding principles included: (1) leadership and empowerment of women and girls, (2) client/survivor-centered, (3) safe and accessible, (4) community involvement, (5) coordinated and multi-sectoral, and (6) tailored. This report has provided a foundation that can be used not only in crisis settings but in city planning and government decisions made on behalf of women and girls.

And in India, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a GAGE consortiumpartner, has been implementing a program called Plan-It Girls, an initiative intended to empower girls, build life and employability skills, and promote gender equality at the local level. What has set the program apart is the focus on girls being squarely at the center of decision-making and program implementation. This includes the creation of safe spaces, which are designed based on in-depth discussions with the girls themselves. As a result, the girls feel heard; supported; and safe in their schools, communities, and home environments. And the girls have expressed that the Plan-It-Girls sessions have helped them define their own identity. In order to make this happen, a great deal of time and energy was put into getting buy-in from teachers, parents, male peers, and the broader community. What has defined Plan-It Girls is that the study did not focus only on engaging the girls but on expanding their social support network in order to cultivate more gender equity, encourage boys to provide a safer and more supportive environment, and to shift gender-discriminatory norms through dialogue and action. According to the school principal in Pakur, Jharkhand, “The girl’s school attendance has improved by 20-25% after the start of the program.” The comprehensive approach appears to be creating change in attitudes and behaviors.

So, what are we learning from all of this? Whether we’re looking at safe spaces in crisis settings or those in peaceful times, we are learning valuable lessons about how to create spaces that work.

And how do we tackle a systemic problem? By changing the system itself and those who sustain it. GAGE research shows that while safe spaces are helpful, they alone do not necessarily counter the risks that the most vulnerable adolescents face. There is simultaneously a need for more targeted approaches that include strengthening service delivery systems or poverty reduction, in tandem with safe spaces. And we know it will take an equally sustained effort to raise awareness, build job-related and life skills among girls, nurture peer support networks, provide mentors, ensure access to information and resources, and catalyse community engagement.

It’s a comprehensive approach to an extraordinarily complex challenge – and one whose dynamics we need to understand. GAGE’s research in Jordan, in partnership with UNICEF, will shed light on the ways in which integrated programming – with safe spaces at the centre –  mediates adolescent and youth development trajectories and broader wellbeing, as well as the spill-over effects that such programming has on broader community and social cohesion dynamics and gendered social norms. In Ethiopia, GAGE will evaluate the impact of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) -funded Act with Her programme, led by Pathfinder and CARE in Ethiopia, through a mixed-methods longitudinal approach incorporating a randomised control trial. Act with Her has been designed to explicitly answer research questions on a variety of safe spaces interventions, the bundling of these interventions and options for duration of programming. The longitudinal design of GAGE – spanning nine years (2015-2024) and following the lives of 18,000 adolescent girls and boys in diverse developing countries – will be key in contributing to the evidence base we need to understand the impact of different programme components – including safe spaces – and how sustainable their effects are.

Finally, we must remember that initiatives should be adolescent-focused and adolescent-driven. It is critical to ensure adolescents feel fully supported in voicing their opinions and addressing their needs, and feel respected in the decisions the make. While in tandem recognising that potential change strategies must simultaneously invest in integrated intervention approaches at different levels, weaving together policies and programming that support adolescents their families and their communities while also working to effect system-level change.