For the August 2023 episode of the IGC podcast, we are joined by Roger Yates, Regional Director, and Elsie Masava, Youth Advocacy Advisor, at Plan International in Nairobi. They discuss the specific challenges girls and young women face in the region, how to address these challenges, and how leaders can empower young people to claim their space and become change agents for gender equality.
Hello, and welcome to the August episode of our IGC Podcast. My name is Hannah Reinl, and I’m with the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva.
Earlier this month, the 12th of August, marked International Youth Day. So in today’s episode, we will discuss the specific challenges that arise at the intersection of youth and gender, but more importantly, how we can empower the next generation of leaders for gender equality.
I am delighted to welcome our two guests, Elsie Masava and Roger Yates from Plan International, who are joining us from Nairobi!
Roger Yates is the Regional Director for Plan International covering the Middle East, and East and Southern Africa. He has worked in both development and emergencies since 1984, working mostly in Africa for local and international NGOs, the UN and Governments. He has been an International Gender Champion since 2019. Roger comes from England originally and has lived in Nairobi since 2018.
Thank you, very nice to be here. Thank you for the introduction.
And you have brought with you today your colleague Elsie!
Elsie Masava is a Gender and Youth Specialist who has worked in the development sector with local, regional and global actors for over 11 years, advocating for political commitment and increased investment for girls and young women in Africa. She is keen on shifting power and resources to the least heard and underserved communities. Elsie currently works as a Youth Advocacy Advisor for Plan International and is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Welcome to the IGC podcast Elsie!
Thank you very much for having me.
Let’s dive in! I’m curious, as a starting point, to hear from you what are the particular challenges that girls and young women in the region are facing today? Elsie, maybe you can give us a brief overview.
Thanks, Hannah. I think that's a very pertinent question to ask in such challenging times that we're experiencing within the region, particularly where we are experiencing changes in, you know, in climate change, our weather patterns are actually now very erratic. We’re experiencing economic downturns, we are also experiencing conflict in quite a number of countries, particularly within the Horn of Africa. And this is therefore translating to the girls and young women actually being affected heavily. Not only in specific aspects, but you know, compounding into various areas of their livelihoods and therefore, translating into them not being able to live their best lives at this point.
So this is exactly what's happening currently in the region. And what we see maybe more specifically, is drought, actually taking precedents and taking such a large chunk of the challenges that we are really encompassing in these areas. So in Kenya, particularly, in Somalia, in Ethiopia, aspects of drought have actually left quite a number of people, we're talking into the millions, around 22 million people, facing acute food insecurity. Of these 22 million people, 5.1 are actually children and young women. So this is something that we would really like to address, as Plan International, it has actually raised our bells. And we are calling this the “red alert” in terms of ensuring that we can take action and respond to this.
In South Sudan, where, you know, there is now more than just hunger, we are experiencing armed conflict. And you know, lack of rain for quite a number of years. It's also realizing that almost 7.7 million people are facing this crisis. And therefore, it's translating to them not being able to even just live the normal lives that we experienced currently.
So understanding this background really helps us to situate the girls and young women challenges that we face. When this happens, when hunger hits, education is not a priority. It's not a priority for the girls, because they are seen as, you know, caregivers. And so they take up the role of more and more responsibility towards fetching water, and not just fetching water from the local places as they've been doing, but going more and more distances to be able to access water for the whole household. So this is actually translating into stress, and, you know, increased burden for these girls and therefore education is no longer at the top. So then they either just drop off school because of the burden of chores that they have, or they are now married off to lessen the burden that they experience.
So what we're seeing within the region is that there are several countries for Plan International have actually hit what we are calling, you know, highest heat in terms of drought and the challenges that come with that. And these countries are actually Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. And most recently, Sudan because of the conflict that they're experiencing. And this is actually translating to, that with the hunger that comes, it's translating to girls dropping out of school at a higher rate than they would. In Tana River, in Kenya, we have heard stories from head teacher saying that as the children actually enrolled, during the early years, we see a 50:50 split in terms of girls and boys. But as we go on into, particularly age 12 to 13, there's a serious decline and drop out of girls from school. This is actually you know, very directly linked to the burdens that they carry, in terms of caregiving, and also the burdens that households are facing due to poverty. So these are the things that are, you know, biggest challenge for us.
And when we say that, hunger is one of the big aspects, we see that it comes with compounded challenges, the risk of gender-based violence within the home and outside as they venture into, you know, their roles or going to school, such long distances in terms of, you know, traveling for the young people, it is actually being a big challenge for them, as they are then, you know, attacked or face harassment along the roads. Additionally, some things that are usually dropped off any priority list is the access to sexual and reproductive health services. So the basics around you know, sanitary wear that they would really require are no longer a necessity. So, girls and young women are actually facing very diverse effects right now. And we are hoping to make that change by the actions that we are doing at Plan International.
Thank you so much for providing this overview, Elsie. What you're describing are really enormous challenges. Roger, can you tell us more about how Plan International works in the region to address these challenges?
Yeah, I’ll pick up as well, because behind what Elsie was saying there is the fact that crisis situations in the region, hitting very vulnerable people, creates enormous problems. And the cultural background in this region is one where there is such pervasive gender inequality, that girls are always the first to suffer and suffer the most whatever the crisis. We've done a big piece of research, for example, on looking at gender and hunger, and particularly girls. Plan International really focuses on what's happening to girls while working for gender equality. So we looked and we asked what was really happening as a result of the hunger. And we heard from them about how they're being taken out of school, they're getting married off early, all of these things that Elsie mentioned, were coming from that research. Now to respond. We look for programs which address the symptoms, so food, water, money, schooling.
But also we try and work in ways which address those underlying causes. We talk about gender-transformative working. And that's ways in which you can start to work with people at community level, to tackle and change those gender norms, which make girls have the harder time throughout their lives. We also work at a policy level with governments to help to get a policy environment which promotes those aspects of life, which will help girls to get their equality. We support education, and again, with a real focus on making sure that the schools that girls go to are suitable for them. And, you know, this really sad fact that while girls are the majority at the beginning of school, by the time you get to secondary school, they are dropping out. So real concentration on how do you keep girls back in school for as long as possible? And with that, how do you avoid them getting married off early or ending up with unwanted pregnancies before they're ready? Because we know that if you want to tackle that cycle of poverty that goes through generations, the key is to make sure that the young women who have babies, are young women and not children, and that they are educated and healthy and able to bear and to bring up their children successfully.
Thank you, Roger. So with everything that you have shared so far, I think it would be easy to think of young women and girls as victims. However, across the world, we are also seeing young people stepping up as leaders, as agents for change, for gender equality and for social justice. So I would like to hear from both of you how can high-level decision makers, such as our International Gender Champions, actually provide a platform for youth activists and support them and claiming their power?
I think this is a very crucial aspect that we need to cover in terms of defining their roles. And I like that you bring out the aspect that they are seen as victims. No, they're actually, you know, very crucial stakeholders. Why? They have solutions, they're the ones that carry solutions to their lived realities. And usually, in most cases, we tend to, you know, not sufficiently support that. So what we can see and what we call for decision makers structurally is to create that meaningful space for them to actualize change. So it translates into creating safe spaces for them to have these conversations around what you know, good change should look like. And also creating infrastructure where their voices can be heard in terms of policy and designing programs and in actually bringing up the solutions.
Within Plan International, we are very intentional about this, we move from the global level all the way to different localities. We have quite a number of youth leadership programs that support their capacity, and strengthens them to actually take action for their own. We create spaces for them to advocate for this change by, you know, sufficiently tooling their toolbox when engaging decision makers, and we're very keen on opening doors for them. We give up space, we actually give up space for them to raise their voices in different platforms and opportunities that we have. So for us, we noticed that if we're really going to talk about co-creation, and co-ownership, we need to invest into that infrastructure that will allow for this. It will translate into mentorship programs, it will translate into programs like leader program that the region is actually in its second pilot, and we're seeing great and fantastic leaders really benefiting from this. So this is something that we are really crucial in terms of raising the voice. And we have also realized that our role as Plan is to be allies, we are strengthening solidarity and our approaches towards that. So as young people raise their voice, we raise our voice along each other. Our campaigns really speak to that. “Girls Get Equal” campaign is one of the mobilizing spaces or other vehicles that allow for us to join forces with young people, and therefore bring on board that change. Our program models are heavily intertwined with ensuring the voices of young people not only at implementation stage, but design, how we design these programs. So for us, it's very crucial that young leaders actually taking the space and leading the change.
Inclusion by design. Roger, what about you?
At the beginning, we talked about those negative trends going on. But there are a couple of really positive and exciting trends, which are really important for this. One is digital. So as the digital world opens up, there is more space and more space for young people to make their voices heard. And I think we need to build that into everything we do to expand the space of engagement through digital communication.
The other thing is that the trend now is really positive of seeing space for young people, especially for girls in major events. We've just come from Women Deliver. We saw fantastic involvement of young people at the conference there. And so I think for the International Gender Champions, all of whom are leaders in their own spaces, the first thing we have to do is to say whatever we're doing, whatever policies we're putting through, whatever initiatives we're starting, we have to say, have I heard the voices of young people and of girls when designing this and what will be the result of my policy, my initiative for girls and young people. Will it improve or will it contribute towards gender equality in the long term? Regardless of what the short term aims are. So look at the ways in which we do things as well as what we do. We’ve seen every time we consult young people on things, you've got such fire, such passion, and really good ideas. And allowing young people to call us out, those of us who are a lot older, making sure we actually listen, it's not just hearing this message, really listen and take note and give space. I think if everyone does that, we will start to see some of those trends in every aspect, whether it's in protection and the issues around, say, urban design and how cities are, you know, cities, which are safe for girls are good cities for everyone. But better because they are safe for girls. Refugee camps, which are safe for girls are better for all refugees, but especially important that they're safe for girls.
Now, the Gender Champions, we are all committed to a zero-tolerance pledge on sexual harassment and bullying. That's really important. And again, we've got to think through the eyes of young people, through the senses of girls to say, is what's happening in my organization really protecting and supporting young people? And am I actually turning any blind eyes? Or am I looking full in the face and genuinely change zero tolerance for any sexual harassment or abuse?
So both of you have already shared some really valuable pieces of advice. I'm going to challenge you now with this last question, before we have to end unfortunately, to really bring it down to the one key piece of advice that you want our fellow Gender Champions and members of the community to leave this podcast with. What would that be? Elsie, maybe we can hear from you first?
From my end, I think it's the quick and urgent push to move from presence to influence. It's important that young people are not only present, but they can actually influence.
From presence to influence, love that. Roger, what about you?
One message is: listen. Listen to young people, listen to girls. But I have a couple of other small messages, particularly in relation to Nairobi, because we're the Nairobi chapter. And a real message to all the Champions in Nairobi is to seek out more Champions in Nairobi. We need more in the group, we really want to take action together on the way that the climate crisis is affecting gender relations, and gender equality. So we want to find ways to work on that. And we want to engage more as Gender Champions with the feminist civil society around in the region. And let's find ways to do that to reach out and find ways to collaborate. There's so much that we have in common.
Great! Little call to action here for the Nairobi-based Champions and those who are not yet champions.
Roger, Elsie, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing why we need and how we can think youth empowerment and gender equality together. It's been great having you with us.
Thank you so much, Hannah, really, really, really good! Thank you!