By Julia Fan, Women Deliver Senior Manager for Youth Engagement and Christabel Netondo, Women Deliver Advisor for Youth Engagement
A few months ago, at the Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) in Rwanda, we were thrilled to announce the Emerging Leaders for Change program — Women Deliver’s newest initiative that builds on our more than 10 years of experience with the Young Leaders Program and is designed to shift power into the hands of adolescent girls and the young people closest to them. Today, we’re happy to share why we’ve sharpened our focus on adolescent girls, and how that is shaping this new program.
Why adolescent girls?
Starting in adolescence, between ages 10 and 24, girls’ opportunities and life choices start to shrink, in comparison to their male counterparts, as the outside world seeks to contain and control them and their bodies. Adolescence is when girls — which Women Deliver defines as anyone who has lived experience, identifies as, or others identify them, as a girl — begin to be sexualized by their communities and societies. Where she can go outside her home, on her own, dramatically reduces. She becomes at risk of things like early or forced marriage, and female genital mutilation/cutting. Her access to health care — particularly sexual and reproductive information and care — may be dramatically curtailed. Her access to education and future economic opportunities are also reduced.
These contradictions continue to sharpen as adolescent girls mature into young women and adulthood. For far too many women, by the time they reach adulthood, the course of their lives has been shaped by events and experiences that took place during adolescence — many of which they did not have control over.
At Women Deliver, we believe that achieving gender equality — ensuring that girls and women’s bodily autonomy, life experiences, and choices are limitless and ever-expanding — means focusing on this critical juncture in adolescence. We also believe that while adolescence is a period of vulnerability for girls, it is also a distinct window of time where, with the right tools and resources, girls can and do lead the charge on advancing positive change. Securing their health and rights is the most powerful tool we have to overcome existing barriers on the road to a gender-equal world.
What is the Emerging Leaders for Change Program?
With this sharpened focus on impacting the lives and opportunities of adolescent girls, we began to think about how this would impact our programs. We examined the feedback and lessons learnt from partnering with young people through our flagship Young Leaders Program. Over the past 13 years of working with and listening to Young Leaders, Women Deliver has adapted our methods and shifted our ways of programming to be more meaningful and equitable. And we are proud to launch, in the coming months, the result: the Emerging Leaders for Change Program.
Emerging Leaders — those eligible to join this program — are advocates for sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) for adolescent girls and are in the beginning stages of their advocacy journey. They may not have had access to opportunities like this previously, and this program could therefore be a vital stepping stone. While many Emerging Leaders may be adolescent girls, it’s important to stress that Emerging Leaders don’t have to be adolescent girls themselves. They can be of any gender identity and from ages 15–29, as long as they have a focus on impacting the lives of adolescent girls in their work.
The Emerging Leaders for Change program will:
- Provide critical support for Emerging Leaders’ own advocacy projects. This support includes multi-year trust-based funding, technical assistance and context-specific resources, capacity-sharing and strengthening opportunities based on self-created learning journeys, and collective and feminist care and support.
- Build the brand and profile of Emerging Leaders as national, regional, and global advocates on SRHR.
- Form a supportive ecosystem of peers and partners with whom Emerging Leaders can collectively work.
What will the impact be?
Our aim is that this program will result in a movement of Emerging Leaders, Young Leader Alumni, and youth advocates that can and will advance and carry forward the fight for bodily autonomy in the face of some of the most pressing issues affecting adolescent girls, including:
- Universal health coverage (UHC): UHC is an essential human right, ensuring that quality health services are accessible to everyone without financial burdens. While UHC encompasses a wide range of health services, it is imperative to ensure that girls and women’s health needs, particularly their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), are prioritized to truly achieve healthcare for all. This requires the integration of SRHR into healthcare services, ensuring that everyone — particularly adolescent girls — can exercise their rights to make choices about their bodies and health.
- The climate crisis: The global climate crisis is far from gender-neutral. It disproportionately affects those who have contributed to it the least — particularly adolescent girls. This crisis has both direct and indirect impacts on adolescent girls’ SRHR. For instance, climate-induced disasters like storms and floods damage health infrastructure, hindering access to SRH services and products. The climate crisis increases domestic and care work, burdening girls with additional responsibilities like water procurement, crop maintenance, and childcare. Consequently, girls are often pulled out of school, sometimes leading to early marriages, denying them comprehensive sexuality education and future prospects.
- The anti-rights movement: For decades, a powerful and well-financed coalition of anti-rights entities has relentlessly sought to erode the rights of girls and women to bodily autonomy and SRHR. Consequently, global progress on SRHR has stagnated, and it is now under increasing threat of regression. Without determined action to counter these groups, girls face the ominous risk that the very human rights frameworks designed to protect them may be turned against them to legitimize discrimination. There is an urgent need to counter anti-rights groups and their narratives, both on a global and national scale, to champion the rights of adolescent girls and secure a future where their autonomy and rights are secure.
Working at the national, regional, and global level, these youth leaders will hold their governments accountable to deliver on SRHR in UHC plans, ensuring a gender-just approach in climate adaptation measures, and safeguard SRHR from anti-rights actors.
Women Deliver is currently engaging in consultations with adolescents, youth, Young Leader Alumni, and other key partners and stakeholders in the design of this new program. Additional details, including the timeline, regions and thematic areas for applications to join the program, will be announced in early 2024.
With the Emerging Leader for Change program, we will provide resources to and platforms for adolescent girls and those closest to them, especially young people, to speak out on their lived experiences and be at decision-making tables. This is not only a rights-based approach but also critical to ensuring that their expertise is part of the solution to truly achieving gender equity worldwide.