Unpacking Empowerment!

Together with great young people and experts from around the world, Dance4Life organised the event ‘Unpacking Empowerment’ on March 28th. In a real school setting we attended classes with peer talks about sex education and presentations of our empowerment research.

We watched a video of the Journey4Life in Russia, listened to inspirational stories and in the last class we discussed how we can ensure more young people in the world to make positive sexual choices. In the break we experienced empowerment by exercises in setting boundaries, celebrating mistakes and sharing how we feel and talk about sexuality in a safe space. The school experience was excellently facilitated by Ama van Dantzig. Creative designer Anne Zeegers made a visual impression of the day (see below!).

Urgency for research

The urgency to address the issue of young people and empowerment is huge: unsafe sex is one of the top and fastest growing health risks for millions of young people globally. Dance4Life therefore investigated the concept of empowerment and how it relates to sexual choices among nearly 2500 young people from the Netherlands, Indonesia, Russia and Kenya.

These are the main findings that were presented by research institute Avance Impact:

  • The term empowerment is not commonly known by young people. The word cannot simply be translated into Bahasa, Russian, Kiswahili or Dutch. This means that we need to listen to the way young people themselves describe what empowerment means to them.
  • Empowered young people are able to make healthier choices than less empowered young people. The research shows that empowered young people are better able to use strategies for making healthier sexual choices than less empowered young people. Of course we need more research to investigate the real sexual behaviour of young people.
  • Contextualization of programs focusing on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) is key: young people are differently influenced by norms and values within religion and culture, this has an impact on the way young people experience to be empowered.

Read more about young people and empowerment in the #IDECIDE4MYELF research report here.

Marina Todesco (Research Specialist, Dance4Life) presented the first study on the impact of the Journey4Life on young people in Russia, Ghana, Nepal and Tanzania. Main findings are:

  • Across all countries the Journey4Life increases young people’s intentions or behaviour to get tested for HIV and STIs.
  • In Nepal positive changes in intentions to perform healthy sexual behaviour were noticeable. Behaviour such as the use of contraceptives, refusal of unwanted sex, STIs and HIV testing, action against bullying and discrimination.
  • Gender equal attitudes increased in all four countries. In Tanzania (49%), Nepal (31%) and Ghana (24%) more young people are able to critically reflect ion social norms related to SRHR.
  • Confidence increased in Ghana, Nepal and Tanzania, when looking at positive sexuality: discussing contraception use and the STIs status with the partner, asking the partner to have sex and carrying condoms.

Perspectives on empowering young people

In the panel discussion class, our panellists Mette Gonggrijp (Ambassador Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Elena Kiryushina (Youth Advisor, UNAIDS), Judith Westeneng (Senior Researcher, Rutgers) and Francis Mutua (Regional Liaison Africa, Dance4Life) shared their perspectives on the future of empowerment. Executive Director Dance4Life Jael van der Heijden summarized the take aways from this last class and the whole day:

  • Elena stressed the real and urgent problems that need to be addressed: there are 4 million young people living with HIV today, 21 million unwanted pregnancies per year and 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence. “Addressing young people as a problem does not work. We need to take a positive and holistic approach towards sexual development of young people”. Mette stated that it is about building social emotional life skills of young people. Francis added: “We want young people to go from survival mode, to living their full potential. That is what empowerment is about”.
  • We need to build our evidence base on what works, is the main conclusion of the two researches presented today, and research of other partners such as Rutgers, helps to build this evidence base. Judith: “Empowerment is about strengthening the inner voice of young people, but at the same time ensuring an enabling environment for them, so they have a choice, they know their options and they can achieve what they want and need”.
  • Mette: “We need to listen and learn carefully on what works for young people in different contexts. Then we need to integrate that evidence and lessons in programs and platforms for young people”. This means that translating research language into language and experiential programs that resonate with the hearts, minds and bodies of young people is crucial. This is what Dance4Life does with the Journey4Life, and what participants of Unpacking Empowerment could experience today.

Jael: “Empowerment is a huge concept, and it is clear that different partners have different roles to play.  Together we can put a flywheel in motion!”