This year, Restless Development, along with War Child and Youth Business International, published the Case for Space From Rhetoric to Action research to understand the conditions needed for young people to participate in development.

As the three-day Case for Space conference kicks off next week in Bangkok, we are publishing blogs from the young people behind the research. In our third blog of the series, Ani Hao returns to her time researching feminist sexual reproductive health rights activist groups in Rio de Janeiro and what she learned from the experience.

When I first heard about the Case for Space project a year ago, I knew I had found the perfect project for me. I am passionate about youth-led movements, I have a gender focus and at the time, I had just recently graduated from university with a very non-orthodox education: completely interdisciplinary, individualized, and a focus on anthropology. This was chance for me to look at the  strategies youth-led groups in Rio de Janeiro were using to try to achieve policy dialogue about SRHR  (sexual reproductive health rights). I used semi-structured interviews and focus groups (participants were almost all female, and ranged from 14-25) to better understand four prominent youth-led groups in Rio de Janeiro.

There were several striking lessons from this research, some that were immediately apparent and others only  some time afterwards. I immediately realized that the term “SRHR” was rarely used by these activists – they more often used the term “direito ao corpo” (right to bodily integrity) and the claim “direito ao aborto” (right to abortion). Sexual violence is extremely common in Brazil, and since abortion is illegal – there are more than one million abortions per year – there are significantly more deaths from clandestine abortions than from legal operations. Young feminists are therefore more urgently drawing attention to the fact that many women are physically violated, and that access to legal abortions is one of the most important rights within sexual and reproductive rights given its illegality and consequent effect on Brazilian women’s lives, particularly poor and black Brazilian women.

I also saw that almost all of these youth-led groups were working without resources. Only one, which was a formalized NGO working at a national level, received external funding. Not having funding has a serious impact on these groups: none of these groups had their “own” spaces where they could have meetings and carry out events. Some of the smaller feminist groups reported resistance to their activism in their universities and high schools where they organized meetings and events: the administration changed or cancelled their reservations for rooms, and antagonistic male students disrupted their public events. Many were working in isolation as well, without connection to each other nor to larger and older feminist organizations or human rights organizations.

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I concluded that youth-led groups in Rio were not achieving policy dialogue about SRHR because they focused more on cultural dialogue about abortion and sexual violence, which remain mostly taboo issues in Brazil. This is only changing recently, thanks to young feminists creating space for this kind of dialogue on the internet. However, in terms of policy change, young people believe that the government is only going backwards in terms of sexual and reproductive rights. This was true a year ago, and is only worsening today in the midst of a political crisis and an all-white, all-male, conservative interim government. Neither young people nor feminist movements are achieving policy dialogue about SRHR – there is a political impasse, as there has been for decades.

Being able to lead this research as part of the Case for Space had real impact on my life. I saw that our research produced different knowledge about youth-led development than many other perspectives and studies about human rights and international development that had come before. As the youngest researcher out of all of the 18 involved in the project, it opened up other research opportunities for me, and I was also lucky to launch the report at the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum in January of this year. I will be presenting local findings in an academic conference in Harvard with other Case for Space researchers later this year. And finally, the project inspired me to create a collaborative feminist hub in Rio de Janeiro – a safe space for women to connect, work, create, organize, and change the world through their projects and discussion. This project is called Agora Juntas, and we are a network of feminist collectives, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, mothers, and more. Agora Juntas is inter generational, but most of us are young women, which makes sense.

Young people are creative, innovative, and believe in collaboration as the future – a tool to transform politics, the economy, social movements, indeed, the world. The Case for Space research project was an opportunity for me to show how positively youth-led groups, especially young-feminist led groups, can impact societies if only they had an “enabling environment” – resources, capacity, cultural and political space in which to mobilize, evolve, and grow.”

What do you think?

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