Activism in West Africa

Girls' and Young Women's Activism and Organising in West Africa
15 July 2020

This research study provides an insight into the dynamic and vibrant culture of girls’ and young women’s activism in West Africa.

This research study provides an insight into the girls’ and young women’s activism space in West 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 and not easy to locate, despite growing interest from development organisations and donors.  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 Plan International and others to support and catalyse girl and youth led movements in West and Central Africa.

The research is primarily intended to inform Plan International’s regional and country offices in the West and Central African region who are interested in working with and supporting youth and girl activists and their organisations. Learnings are also relevant for likeminded networks, organisations, INGOs and donors who are interested in supporting and multiplying the work of girl and youth activism.

The landscape for girls’ and young women’s activism and organising in West Africa

The research identifies a spectrum of group and leadership structures, from groups led by girls and young women, to groups established by adults where girls and young women play varying leadership roles. Experts felt that expecting adolescent girls to spontaneously become activists is not realistic, particularly in a West African context where exposure to activism is limited, and there can be barriers to them meeting and organising together.  We spoke to girl and young women who were motivated to become activists by role models, through involvement with INGOs, local organisations and initiatives such as debate clubs. 

The study found that girl and young women activists in West Africa tended to be in secondary school or university. Higher education provides the space and connections for girls and young women to organise. Many use Facebook, WhatsApp and social media to promote their work and connect with other activists. Yet because activists with access to social media are immediately more visible to the INGOs looking for them (including this research), there is a risk that this activism –and in turn the activism that INGOs support- reflects a small privileged subset. 

Although this research did not find many examples of grassroots or diverse activists, experts suggested that a lack of online presence, working at a small scale and purposefully keeping a low profile, may all be reasons these groups are not very visible. Young activists and those from rural contexts, may not identify as activists and promote themselves as such. A major recommendation that comes out of the research is the need for an in-depth mapping of girl and young women activists and groups, including at the grassroots level, to really understand the scope of girls’ and young women’s activism and organising and include diverse groups.

Barriers and pressing needs for girls and young women activists

The girl and young women activists we spoke to face a number of challenges including not being taken seriously and feeling taken advantage of by adults who they work with but don’t give them sufficient space to make decisions or do meaningful work. They are passionate about their issues but busy and juggling many commitments. Burnout is a real risk for them.

In addition, girl and young women activists deal with abuse and bullying – both online and offline. Many face threats and several have experienced physical violence. Some have informal mechanisms for dealing with these, but many do not, and most are working in contexts with very limited or non-existent structures and services to support them to stay safe.  Amongst the skills and learning that girl and young women activists seek from their peers and from adult activists and INGOs, is how to stay safe in their work.

They struggle to identify and win funding opportunities and lack the know-how to navigate complex application processes.

Recommendations for Plan International and like-minded organisations

  1. Create spaces for girls’ and young women’s activism and girl and young women’s groups to operate in multiple forms, and take steps to ensure that these include diverse groups
  2. Acknowledge the role of INGOs and adult organisations in fostering girls’ and young women’s activism, and lean into this, while enabling activists and groups to retain their autonomy.
  3. Carefully consider the different needs of girls and young women’s groups, including that they may not want to operate as formal organisations but face barriers that hinder their work.
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Youth empowerment, girls’ leadership