In March I flew to Portugal with Laurie Fitzgerald of Ubele and Rasha Fara of FORWARD to attend PatHERways, an international seminar, funded by Erasmus +. This initiative intends to forge routes that lead more young women to greater civic activism. I was inspired by the potential to engage in dialogue on an international platform, where colleagues would hopefully cohere over strategies that further disrupt the seemingly intractable cycle of negative outcomes for girls and women. There was a clear brief to fulfil – we were tasked with returning to the UK with the key competencies necessary for young women to successfully deliver training sessions that increase levels of democratic participation by their peers. No mean feat but I was excited by the challenge.
Delegates assembled safely in Faro courtesy of our generous hosts – Sofia Martins and her team from ECOS. We hailed from Peru, France, Portugal, Timor Leste, Cabo Verde, the UK and Mozambique brimming with resolve to learn about the realities of each other’s work and how this project was going to make a difference. The deft facilitation techniques of trainers Laure DeWitte and Tanie Estrelo allowed group members to form a bond quickly. Laure and Tanie managed to maintain the balance between steadfast grit and humour, whilst navigating delegates through a rigorous five day programme. We all dived quickly into a range of ice breakers to learn names, likes, dislikes and countries of origin before sharing our personal motivation for wanting to break the pervasive and persevering cycles of gender inequality. A timeline mapping women’s history internationally over the past 200 years was one of the many activities we did collectively to highlight how many struggles have been fought and won through the vigour of women such as surgeon and human rights activist Mary Edwards Walker and the tenacity and courage of those such as trade unionist Jayaben Desai. It also illuminated how painstakingly slow progress for many women still is in terms of issues such as improving education, employment, healthcare; ending gender-based violence and gaining autonomy over our own bodies.
Revisiting our Objectives
We walked through the various strands comprising PatHERways digging out obstacles and deconstructing them in an effort to eliminate major flaws in the plan. The backbone of the programme felt secure. All member groups were confident about recruiting young women leaders and training them to run sessions with their peers. The familiar appeal to drill down into community networks and connect to young women with diverse lived experiences was echoed consistently. Yes, we want to hear from the highly motivated individuals who readily step into leadership, they have a vital role to play as they inspire others. But informal educators sometimes fail to work closely enough with neighbouring organisations to make contact with the contingent of young women, jaded by misfortune, who feel if processes such as voting really changed anything they would actually be illegal! These are the very women who can jump-start our work by offering evidence as to why we need to be bolder and braver in words and deeds to develop more fitting services that tunnel through superficial change and create longer term impact on young women’s lives. Other components of PatHERways include developing a handbook on successful strategies used to engage young women in decision making processes, case-studies highlighting our learning, job shadowing and structures for contributing to international policy.
What’s Happening Internationally?
Examples of work from each organisation demonstrated the complex and divisive nature of gender discrimination which generally functions at multiple levels simultaneously through institutions, cultural practice and social structures thereby, compounding subsequent negative outcomes. In Peru there has been no National Census of Afroperuvians since 1940 and therefore, no accurate picture of how many Peruvians of African descent live in the country. Ashanti Peru has been running for 10 years. It was established to address the compelling needs of this demographic. Escuela de Formación de Jóvenes Líderes de Afrodescendientes (School of Afroperuvian Youth Leadership) offers a range of leadership and advocacy programmes seeking to build resilience and engender pride whilst acting as a lever out of poverty to those with little to no formal education. Only 1% of Afroperuvians complete university programmes. FORWARD, IPPF and Assocciacoe Cultural Bassopa of Vilankulo Mocambique all run a range of health services, educational programmes and campaigns to protect the rights of women over their own bodies. These range from ending the brutal practice of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), to providing effective, relevant sex education and fundamental resources such as free contraception.
There were excellent examples of the rewards communities reap when public funding is wisely invested to grow social enterprise. Ubele, the lead organisation for PatHERways from the UK, has several initiatives running from its headquarters in North London. Wise Women on Wheels is an example of their intergenerational work. The premise is that younger women train elders to be proficient cyclists thereby, improving physical and emotional well-being, exchanging knowledge, strengthening community relations between younger and older citizens and providing opportunities for entrepreneurialism. These principles are shared by the Timor Leste group Empreza D’IAK NGO. The organisation also works to sustain local communities through intergenerational programmes where older women pass on their expertise in the ageing traditions of craftwork. These projects enable women to be financially solvent and support local economies. ECOS is working alongside the United Nations to roll out a multifaceted programme called He for She with the overarching aim of challenging gender roles and Liga das Assocciacoes Juvenis is a federation of youth clubs in Santa Caterina, Cabo Verde, delivering a series of human rights initiatives.
The Personal and the Political
There was a palpable shift in intention mid-week which crystallised the essence of PatHERways for me. A request was made for male delegates present to allow the women in the room to take their space. We were, after all, at a seminar about empowering girls and women! This was a useful reminder for us to reflect on when and how we assume a level of entitlement at times without question. Although the initial discussion was prompted by a need for the more vociferous men in the group to resist the temptation to always vocalise their feelings, the experience provided an opportunity for us all to check our privilege and examine where we may need to relinquish some of our power in the short term to ultimately create a more inclusive environment that everyone feels able to contribute to. If we are to offer authentic service to young women and men, because men must be part of the process too, we have to confront our own shadows and be prepared to address how privilege/inequalities manifest in our lives personally and professionally – and change when we need to.
The experience highlighted, what Tanie referred to as, our ambiguity to tolerance. The initial outcome was a discernible sense of discomfort for some but as the discussion progressed we reaffirmed our need to embrace this learning curve. Behaviour was moderated, there was a greater emphasis on the power of actively listening. Those observing quietly on the periphery started to speak up.
The linguistic acrobatics of Jeremias Tavares and astute references of Crisálida Correia and Rasha provided my second lightbulb moment – we need to look at the issues that impact women as ‘a system of practices’ rather than isolated events – then create systemic approaches to redress inequities.
What’s Next? The UK Perspective
The following months will involve organisations setting up their regional peer training programmes and organising job shadowing visits which is where we, as international partners, can begin to contribute to strategic development. Ubele will be delivering its training to 24 young leaders throughout the summer of 2017 in five London boroughs – Haringey, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Waltham Forest. Once trained, those leaders will be running peer training sessions in the autumn of 2017. This phase will be followed by a London based conference to share the UK’s learning, currently planned for the end of the year. The second PatHERways seminar will take place in March 2018 in Lisbon where all member organisations will be primed to begin sharing key findings; addressing the project’s collective impact and connecting this work with wider strategies on improving outcomes for girls and young women – such as through the relatively newly formed Women’s Equality Party in the UK, which has a Youth Network for 14 to 25 year olds.
This programme is ambitious and not without its challenges, but worthy of pursuit nonetheless. What has been evidenced effectively to date is that seismic shifts come with effective collaboration – thinking big, taking risks, maintaining integrity and compassion – then following commitments through.
PatHERways is creating the conditions where the chronically disadvantaged have a fighting chance of accessing that which they are entitled to as their birth-right – safety, reproductive rights, education, employment, nutrition and adequate housing – so that girls and young women worldwide live with a greater sense of dignity – and the ability to rightfully take their space.
For more information on PatHERways International contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
For PatHERways London contact: Yvonne.Field@ubele.org