Supporting girls and young women’s agency is absolutely central to durably transform gender norms and power relations, improve their value and position in society and advance gender equality. Agency is about being able to make your own decisions about your life, act on those decisions, feeling confident to speak up and having the capacity to be heard and shape decisions at all levels. It applies to and unlocks the potential of girls and young women in all areas of their life, but in particular their power to speak out and have their voices heard. But what does it mean in practice?
First, it is about gender norms and education: in a world where girls and young women are taught to be quiet, not opinionated, and are perceived too young or immature to be taken seriously, we need to invest in reversing these gender and age norms and ensure they remain confident in their ability to lead. Agency is also about knowledge. Access to youth-friendly information is empowering: When girls learn about their rights and develop a critical eye on the world around them and the issues they care about, they are able to speak out, to mobilise others and to play a vital role in shaping the world.
Yet, when girls and young women go against the norm and speak out, they put themselves at risk. As today is the international day for the elimination of violence against women we need to underline, might it be offline or online, girls and young women continue to be attacked for their opinions. UN Women among others reports that women are 27 times more likely to be abused online than men, and women in the age range 18-24 are at heightened risk. To ensure agency and participation, girls and young women need to feel they can speak freely without fear. This starts with providing them with safe spaces online and offline, building their capacity to identify risk and self-protect.
How can #GirlsSpeakOut if we are not able to hear them?
The renewal of the EU Gender Action Plan is the opportunity for the EU to be truly age and gender transformative by making sure that girls and young women’s needs are clearly identified and addressed. Girls can no longer be just an add-on to women when it comes to voice and participation. Like any other thematic area that the next GAP will address, voice and participation requires building girls and young women’s agency and taking targeted action across the life course, from childhood, to adolescence all the way to adulthood. This is the only way #GirlsGetEqual.
Building the agency of girls and young women increases their resilience and should be applied in all contexts. In fragile states, conflict situations and humanitarian settings, young women and adolescent girls play a key role in addressing drivers of conflict and in building peace in their communities, by addressing harmful gender norms and sexual and gender-based violence. In fact, research shows and international actors recognise that there is a direct connection between gender equality and the prevention of conflicts: UNSCR 2242 states that gender equality is “critical to conflict prevention and broader efforts to maintain international peace and security”. Therefore, the informal actions taken by girls and young women as agents of change within their communities need to be supported, in addition to building their capacity to take part in formal conflict prevention and peacebuilding initiatives. This would help to link EU support for girls’ voices and participation to the youth and women peace and security agendas.
However, it is not only girls and young women taking control over their own agency, but it is also about creating structures that are enabling girls and young women to be fearlessly engaged in decision-making in formal spaces. For several years, Youth Envoys within the UN and the AU have channelled youth voices towards these institutions and have come up with plans to reinforce mechanisms for meaningful youth engagement. Within the EU, many young people have hit the streets calling upon their governments to stand up for the future they envisage. However, at EU level we lack systematic, structured mechanisms that allows young voices to feed into international cooperation policies and external actions. So, is the EU ready for its own Youth Envoy?