How to sustain youth advocacy work during a health crisis

Written by Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo-Wondieh, Women for a Change, Cameroon

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which you developed these learnings about supporting a feminist response to the COVID-19 crisis.

We were unprepared for the lockdown due to coronavirus and had to immediately shut down our project, a youth capacity development programme called gShe (Gender, Sexuality and Society, Health Education). However after a few weeks of reflection and discussion, and seeing the misinformation circulating everywhere about COVID-19 and other health issues, we wondered how we could resume engagement of our young people and support them to tackle this issue as part of their own development.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

We asked ourselves:

  • How do we bring the classroom into virtual spaces such as WhatsApp and in a way that engages adolescents as much as they were pre-COVID-19?
  • How do we ensure that those without mobile phones or connectivity are not left out?
  • How can we ensure that even those with smartphones are connected online?
  • How do we ensure that the adolescents are not overburdened with lots of materials online?
  • How can we measure success at a time like this?

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

To help as many adolescents as possible to participate, we provided some with internet data if needed so they could join the weekly chats and groups. For those who didn’t have WhatsApp, we used SMS or telephone calls to reach them. For those who didn’t have a smartphone, we reached out via their parents, who knew us from the project.

Through these methods we facilitated occasional Zoom and other online platform meetings with the adolescents to keep up the dialogue around bodily autonomy, leadership and their experience with COVID-19. 

The exciting part of this shift during lockdown though is that the adolescents themselves hold weekly chats to discuss and strategise their activist ideas and activities. They began developing practical, innovative ideas, like organising online against police harassment and brutality against young people not wearing masks and against intimate partners’ violence. 

One exciting initiative they developed was an educational picture story campaign on Facebook with COVID-19 health messages called “WFAC in conversation with adolescents on COVID19CMR”.  Through this they post each day one adolescent’s personal story of what their experience of COVID-19 means to them.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Seeing leadership emerge among our adolescents during this difficult time was very inspiring.

Integrating technology into their work, especially around peer-to-peer education on COVID-19, menstrual management and WASH, showed the transformation gShe brings to adolescents in terms of self-empowerment, development and their ability to develop critical thinking skills to constructively disrupt systems of inequalities. 

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Employ a participatory approach and be inclusive of all stakeholders at every stage, as it builds trust and more transparent relationships. 
  • At times of crisis, a leader should be humble enough to show their vulnerability and flexible enough to accept change and learn from their learners. We were open with the adolescents about the challenge and asked them to explore alternative options to maintain our work. As a result, we saw some remarkable outputs from the adolescents during this time. Also what is valuable is many are proud of what they have been able to do and achieve.

Do you have any photos or documents that would help or inspire another organisation or group facing the same problems? Insert specific example if relevant to the guide.

Facebook campaign WFAC in conversation with adolescents on COVID19CMR.

Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo-Wondieh, Women for a Change, Cameroon

Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo-Wondieh (@ZoFem) is an award-winning feminist humanitarian storyteller and researcher with over 10 years’ experience in gender and digital activism, movement building, policy advocacy and youth leadership. Her advocacy involves creating spaces for women and girls to engage with policy and decision-makers at the highest levels, including the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and translating and raising awareness on national and international women’s rights protocols and frameworks. Zoneziwoh holds an MSc. in Sex, Gender and Violence.