Young feminists driving change

Imogen Davies Active citizenship, Gender & Development Journal, Participation and Leadership, Rights, Violence Against Women and Girls, Youth

Imogen Davies, Oxfam GB’s Global Adviser on Youth, Gender & Active Citizenship, and co-editor of the latest issue of Gender & Development, describes the political approaches young feminist movements are taking to reshape the international development landscape.

There are more young people alive today than there ever have been before. Almost one person in four is aged 10-24, with 90 per cent of them living in low-income countries. And in many countries, under-25s make up well over half the population: for example, 56 per cent in Guatemala; 63 per cent in Afghanistan, and 67 per cent in Mali.

Yet, young people are still largely excluded from the decisions that affect their lives and the societies they live in. In recent years, governments and development actors have started to wake up to the youth demographic. But often, young people are still just seen as a means of driving economic growth. Or, otherwise, a threat to development; because of the perceived risk of violent extremism, youth unemployment, and migration.

Young people are making their voices heard and demanding a seat at the table.

Young people are rejecting this instrumentalist narrative, making their voices heard and demanding a seat at the table. They are challenging injustices and championing change. Young people have been at the heart of recent social movements such as the global Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, Y’en en marre in Senegal, le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, and Lucha in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Young women are mobilising alongside young men, fighting for their right to play a full part in shaping today and tomorrow.  They are also the leading voices for progress in gender equality and women’s rights around the world.

  • In India, young women have led campaigns such as the 2016 #IWillGoOut protest, asking for legal protections from sexual assault.
  • In Bolivia, the 2017 ACTÚA deténla violencia campaign is addressing violence in young people’s relationships.
  • The 2015 #NiUnaMenos campaign in Argentina has seen young women demand an end to femicides and the oppression of women, lesbians and trans people. This ranges from extreme violence and unsafe abortions, to daily street harassment and unpaid care work.
  • And of course, young feminists have been central to the global #MeToo movement, transforming public narratives on sexual violence, assault and harassment.

Social media is part of everyday life for the young women who are driving these campaigns, and is spearheading new ways of organising both on and offline.

The new Gender & Development issue on Young Feminisms comes at a time of increasing development sector interest in young people. It also coincides with a vibrant ‘fourth wave’ of feminism which pioneers online forms of collective action. Young feminists are developing innovative responses to the current onslaught against women’s rights. They are promoting sexual and reproductive rights, calling out sexual violence while holding perpetrators to account, and campaigning for women’s political, economic and social empowerment.

For young women, activism often comes at a higher cost than it does for their male counterparts. As well as the sexual abuse and harassment at the forefront of the #MeToo and #AidToo revelations, many young activists are persecuted by governments and other groups when campaigning on feminist and LGBT+ issues that challenge vested interests. Technology-based violence is a growing problem for feminist and queer activists who write, work, contribute and campaign in online spaces. For the current generation of feminists, taking risks to further and protect women’s rights, is a daily fact of life.

Young feminist movements are modelling activism founded on principles of participation, empowerment, collaboration, power-sharing, and feminist leadership.

Young feminist movements are modelling activism founded on principles of participation, empowerment, collaboration, power-sharing, and feminist leadership. Research has found that intersectionality and inclusivity are central to these movements, with young feminist organisations across the globe representing diverse identities and social movements. They are often highly critical of mainstream development actors who prioritise economic growth, fail to respond to women’s realities, and continue to promote top-down, hierarchical ways of working. These movements are mobilising people around the world.

As present and future workers, citizens, leaders, parents, students and carers, young women are those for whom the success or failure of development policies is perhaps the most crucial. Young feminist movements offer a model of political, intersectional work which can challenge policymakers, practitioners, governments and donors, and lead the way in reshaping and re-politicising international development.

Download the full article from the Young Feminisms issue of Gender and Development

Pauline Chetcuti