Girls’ and young women’s activism in West and Central Africa: How girls and young women become leaders of change

29 October 2020

Yah Vallah Parwon, feminist and co-founder of Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative, shares her experience of girls’ and young women’s activism and reflects on the importance of the research on ‘Girls’ and Young Women’s Activism and Organising in West and Central Africa’ as a guide for Plan International and other like-minded institutions to work with girls and youth.

Almost a decade ago, I co-founded a Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) youth-led organisation in Liberia. This initiative was inspired by the personal experiences me and the other co-founder had with SRHR. It all began mobilising adolescent girls and young women in a community and hosting monthly meetings on SRHR.  The number of girls and young women who came to attend our first meeting was greater than we ever expected. It turned out that my membership as a young woman in the community was a significant trust-building factor and many households wanted their children in that space to talk about issues they were not talking about at home or anywhere else in the community, where there was a lack of a conscious trust-building approach. Following the first one, more meetings were held. It became a monthly activity. Households within the community started to donate resources. Some parents donated food items for refreshment while others made their homes available to host monthly meetings. The activity was inherently sustainable and is still being carried out while we speak, regardless of access to donor funds and the expansion of our programs.

Along the way, the initiative was confronted with many critical questions – why were some members of our group getting pregnant despite discussions on teenage pregnancy? How do we use the experiences from the community to bring about change at the national level? Boys of similar ages began expressing concerns that their female peers were attending these meetings, while they were not. So many more questions and some remain unanswered, but every attempt to answer these questions led to a reliance on evidence-based approaches; co-creating activities with adolescent girls and young women; and seeking mentorship from more experienced organisations. Today, we implement a more holistic program and can connect our community work with national-level initiatives to influence change at the macro level.

This experience is not a unique one. Many girls and young women-led organisations and activism in West and Central Africa are initiated from a place of passion, the need for change, a personal experience and sometimes a privilege. Our close involvement and oftentimes experience with the issues results in the design of adequate programs. Notwithstanding that, along the way the effectiveness and impacts of girls and young women’s work require an enhanced ability to prepare or respond to the critical questions and unique needs.

The research on Girls’ and Young Women’s Activism and Organising in West and Central Africa answers the critical questions about the work of adolescent girls and young women who are organising to create change or influence decision-making. The research is based on young women’s and youth activists’ experiences and the results produced will be useful to organisations working for girls and young women as well as to girls and young women themselves to support their work. 

The research is a great step in the right direction and aims at informing Plan International and other like-minded institutions’ work with girl and youth activism. However, it is my hope that girls and young women are more than co-creators and are empowered to lead the implementation of programs that will result from this piece of research.

Yah Vallah Parwon, Feminist and Co-Founder of Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative, Liberia. She was the co-facilitator of the Workshop with girls and young women activists, which contributed enormously to Plan International’s research.

Poster of girls and young women's activism in West Africa

About the research Girls’ and Young Women’s Activism and Organising in West and Central Africa

There is a dynamic and vibrant culture of girls’ and young women’s activism and organising in West Africa. Yet girls’ and young women’s activism in the region is not well documented or widely known about. Who are these activists, how are they organising, what drives them to demand change and what are the barriers they face? The intention of this research was to begin to answer these questions and identify opportunities for organisations like Plan International to support and catalyse girl and youth-led movements in West and Central Africa.

In 2019, Plan International’s West and Central Africa regional hub carried out the first phase of a study into girls and young women-led activism in the region. Our intention was to begin to fill the knowledge gap on girls’ and young women’s activism and organising in West Africa.

The research was informed by reviewing existing literature and by speaking with experts: INGOs, civil society and funders working on youth engagement in the region. We interviewed civil society activists, some of whom were former girl activists, such as Yah Parwon, who was among the experts involved. Most importantly we spoke to and explored the perspectives and experiences of 10 young women and girl activists from five countries in West Africa during a human centre design workshop.

  • Face, Person, Human
    Yah Vallah Parwon

    Feminist and Co-Founder of Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative, Liberia

Education, Skills and work, Youth empowerment, girls’ leadership