Perry Maddox is the COO of Restless Development and is currently in South Africa visiting our office there. What he heard from the young people discussing International Women’s Day and women’s future moved him to write this feature length piece.
Part of my job with Restless Development is to visit our Country Programmes to review our work, spend time with our people, learn from our programmes and explore how to increase our impact. Last Friday we visited our programmes in Gubervu outside of King Williams Town, South Africa, witnessing a session on International Women’s Day. Our volunteers asked students what they wanted to see for women by 2030. The answer was sobering.
Restless Development (South Africa) isn’t based in Johannesburg or Pretoria. Our head offices and programmes are based in the Eastern Cape, the poorest part of South Africa and one of the most overlooked areas by policy makers, because that’s where our work is needed most.
“This must be youth-led”
Earlier that morning, we met our strategic partners at the Department of Social Development and UNFPA, with whom we’ve been working to safeguard young people’s sexual and reproductive health in the Eastern Cape. In the meeting, we talked about the major problems facing young people – gender-based violence, out-migration and difficulty making a living – all compounded by the fact that so many policies created in Pretoria are never put into practice.
Discussing the new policy on adolescent sexual reproductive health just signed into law, they asked Restless Development to help lead the way so that this policy will lead to real change in the Eastern Cape. We will work together with these partners, bringing in more government offices and civil society organisations, but it was our colleague who heads up the population wing of the Department of Social Development in Eastern Cape who said it best: “This must be youth-led.”
Typical Restless energy
An hour later, we were in Gubervu to observe a different programme, where our young leaders were gearing up to lead a day of sessions in the main school about International Women’s Day. These volunteers – a mix of South African and British volunteers on the International Citizen Service programme – live and work in these communities full time, leading sessions in schools, working with young people out of school, and partnering with teachers, local leaders and the community to effect real change for young people.
The session began with a typical Restless energy full of interactive activities to get the students moving, energised and ready to go. People often ask me why we do this type of thing in our sessions. It’s simple; this is a way to get young people having fun, feeling comfortable and ready to engage on issues that often tackle very difficult issues.
Students then explored themes around self-awareness and self-esteem before reflecting on the role of women and girls in society. Interactive exercises drawing pictures of women and then mapping out the expectations and hopes for them led to a fruitful discussion of how best to support women and girls, as well as men and boys, to be full participants and leaders in society.
The final exercise linked to International Women’s Day and the new Sustainable Development Goals, asking students what they wanted to see for Women by 2030. What the students said was sobering – “End Rape,” “No Abuse,” and “No Sexual Harassment” they responded overwhelmingly, both girls and boys.
This is the reality. The reality despite the great policies on paper, the reality despite South Africa’s ‘middle-income’ status as a country, and the reality despite the shopping centres and visible indicators of wealth only 20 minutes’ drive away. South Africa is a land of great disparity from rich to poor. Here in Gubervu, like so many other communities in the Eastern Cape, gender-based violence is endemic. It is so prevalent that it is the first thing 15 year olds think of when asked what they want the world to be for women.
A conversation with the school principal confirmed these facts – for 10 years he has seen the lack of livelihoods options drive many adults to migrate to urban areas and other provinces, often leaving children behind with family or community members. Crime and gender-based violence affects most of the students – boys and girls – and hinders their ability to stay in school, learn and grow into healthy adults.
Young people at the heart of poverty to lead change
That’s where Restless Development comes in. By placing young people at the heart of poverty to lead change, our young leaders are able to approach areas like gender-based violence in a friendly, sensitive way that encourages young people to participate. Over time, we’ve seen the impact of this approach over and over.
In South Africa, we’re not just getting young people to talk about these issues, but we’re seeing real change in the communities as more gender-based crimes are reported to police, more young people know their rights, and more young people are setting the example for entire communities.
The sobering responses were a validation of our work – that we have listened to government, to communities and to young people to target our efforts where they are needed. All of this is a validation that young people are the right ones to lead this change.
Following the session, we sat in on the volunteer weekly learning session. This week, volunteers from three communities had all joined to share their successes and challenges from a week of deep community work, to learn together and from each other, to laugh and to vent, and to plan another week.
This is a story of grassroots, people-led development
These are the faces of a different kind of development. Not the sad faces of exploitative marketing we see on the television, in the Tube and in the newspapers designed to make us donate. Not the stories about the aid we’re sending to some far-flung place. No, this is a story that transcends donor and recipient, that transcends South African and British, that transcends expatriate staff who are inexplicably paid more than their national counterparts, that transcends the false dichotomies that have governed too much development work in the past.
This is a story of grassroots, people-led development working on the biggest challenges identified by communities for themselves. It is also about connecting the impact of this work in people’s lives to broader discourses like International Women’s Day and Action/2015, because these same 15 year olds will be 30 when the Sustainable Development Goals finish in 2030. They are Generation Restless – the young people who must lead change if those lofty goals are to become reality.
They’re already out there, young people at the heart of poverty, leading change from impact to influence. Students in the classroom, volunteers leading change, and many more. Leading today.