‘Unless we openly discuss the sticky and persistent issues of power dynamics, especially when it comes decision making, resource sharing, and representation, inclusion of young people will remain tokenistic.’ – Pooja Singh, Adolescent Girls Investment Plan (AGIP)
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’. Whilst young people in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have long been at the forefront of socio-political movements, their experiences of and opportunities for participation, voice and agency are mediated by social norms around gender, age, rurality, citizenship status and other factors. In the context of multiple intersecting crises globally, the voices of adolescents who are already marginalised and most impacted are often overlooked or inadequately engaged.
The workshop therefore brought together academics, young activists and practitioners to explore challenges and avenues for operationalising intersectional approaches in policy and programming with adolescents, as well as to think critically about how to connect with and support reflexive, inclusive youth activism.
We kicked off the session with a presentation by Elena Samonova at University College Dublin on children’s rights in the context of Sierra Leone, where local interpretations of children’s rights focus on education and other socio-economic rights rather than the right to participation for children and youth. Whilst young people want to participate more fully in their communities, this is not supported and even feared by elders. Children’s rights discourses can create tensions and challenges to gendered and generational orders that must be accounted for in work to promote the ‘right to participate’.
Elizabeth Dessie at the University of Manchester next presented preliminary findings on gendered livelihood strategies by urban young people in Ethiopia, observing the diversification of everyday practices by youth in order to adapt to precarity and uncertainty. She suggested that changes and transitions to ‘adulthood’ are experienced subjectively, and thus often resist categorisation; an intersectional lens can thus create space for subjective definitions employed by young people to define their life-worlds.
We next heard from Rose Pinnington of Kings College London on her research with Kerry Selevester at ANSA on the economic empowerment of marginalised adolescent girls and young women in Mozambique. Their findings emphasize that the agency of girls to navigate spaces and access opportunities beyond their own immediate neighbourhoods are constrained by a lack of autonomy in decision-making related to their movements, as well as their sense of safety, infrastructure and economic challenges. They underline that because agency is social and relational, mentoring can help girls to develop their self-efficacy and thus expand their mobility and income-generating opportunities.
Jo Roberts and Tony Howard then presented the ‘participation cube’ – a tool for assessing voice and agency that uses 3 axes that capture who participates in research; the levels or depth at which they participate; and the stages of research in which they are involved. They suggested that the insights it can offer into where and when different social groups encounter obstacles to participation can enable better intersectional planning and implementation of initiatives.
Our discussants offered some important reflections to close the session. Pooja Singh of the Adolescent Girls’ Investment Plan spoke about the role of adolescent and youth activism within international fora like the Generation Equality Forum and what policymakers and practitioners can do to support and forefront the leadership of young people. In particular, she highlighted the need to address the unequal power dynamics, ensure resourcing for adolescent and youth participation, and including young people throughout the decision-making process — and not only when it is convenient.
Sarah Alheiwidi, a young stateless Syrian researcher working with the GAGE team in Jordan, reflected on the challenges of involving the most marginalised adolescents and youth in Jordan in research, but also the importance of doing so. Adolescent girls, particularly those married as children, encounter barriers to participation that vary according to their age and level of schooling; these nuances must be properly understood by programme implementers, which requires both knowledge of the sociocultural context and direct communication with adolescents themselves.
Finally, Kara Hunersen of John Hopkins University, emphasized the opportunities offered by longitudinal research to both engage with young people over time on issues that matter to them and to better establish how voice and agency is mediated dynamically and temporally by their age, gender, citizenship and socioeconomic status. She particularly drew attention to the shift that happens during early adolescence at ages 10-14, which is often overlooked in research but is a key period in which young people are expressing voice and agency but encounter restrictions from their families, communities and neighbourhoods.
Young people’s voice and agency is key to establishing a more just and equal world. The exciting research highlighted by this workshop offered key insights into how researchers and practitioners can engage with the current generation of adolescents as they pave a new path through global turmoil and upheaval.