Committed young leaders have made all the difference in the fight against unsafe sexual practices and discrimination in South Africa, says Nanor Arakelian.
As we walked to the Meeting Room for our last evening together, bringing closure to the TAMASA Project (Towards A More Accountable South Africa – funded by the EU), the venue was a sea of colourful dresses and suits, beautifully worn by the Restless Development Volunteers, eager to receive their certificates for their hard work within their communities. They have begun their own leadership journeys and have realised the potential they have to do great things as young leaders in South Africa.
Some might think that 9 months is not enough time to make a change. But last year I saw the huge difference 20 young leaders made in their communities when they came together and rolled their sleeves up.
20 volunteers headed to Stutterheim for the 3 day debrief of TAMASA from their respective towns of Qumbu, Mbizana, and Mount Frere. The debrief is a space for learning, a chance for volunteers to share their work and achievements with their friends, and colleagues. It also provides the opportunity to document experiences, challenges, amazing memories, and give recommendations for programme improvement.
On the first day each group delivered a thorough presentation about their work with young people (both those who go to school, and those who do not) in the communities of Alfred Nzo and O.R Tambo. They explained the comprehensive sexuality education, life skills and advocacy workshops that they facilitated. They shared their highlights, successes, and challenges, and talked about the events they led. Many of the volunteers talked about the breakthroughs they had talking about sexual reproductive health with local clinics, parents, in and out of school youth, and cultural and religious leaders.
Breaking the barriers of tradition, meeting with Chiefs and Leaders in the villages, and speaking out on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and its importance, the volunteers were able to spread awareness of challenges that youth face in the Eastern Cape. This was all against the backdrop of some of the highest rates of sexual violence, HIV and AIDS, teenage pregnancy and crime in the country.
The volunteers managed to create a movement of rural youth to voice and promote SRHR policies, as well as forging successful collaborations with different Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to support their cause. They were able to partner with various stakeholders such as school principals, health clinics, community leaders, the Department of Health (DoH), Department of Education (DoE), the municipality, and youth centres.
Hearing about the personal learning experiences of the volunteers was a highlight. Here’s what they said.
“Restless Development South Africa gave me the chance to enhance and strengthen my skills of leadership and public speaking, challenging important people in my community, and most importantly having a positive influence on other youth.”
“I realised that I needed to take more responsibility and actually be the person I’m advocating my friends to be, so I stepped up.”
Michael, one of the volunteers brought up an interesting point about the parents, and how hard it was to start a conversation with them about sexual rights, but said that once they broke the ice it became easier;
“Now I can easily have a conversation with my siblings in front of my parents – and actually discussing the issues of condoms, HIV and AIDS, and LGBT topics without the awkward silences and embarrassing comments.”
All the volunteers are eager to keep up their involvement with the community amongst their peers, and maintain their advocacy roles – facing the challenges ahead, like making sure they don’t decline in the future. It’s amazing to see the great work and motivation of young leaders and their willingness to keep on going even when the project has come to an end. For them, the journey has just begun.
An Armenian from Jerusalem, grew up in Ramallah; she has a background in Sociology from Bethlehem University, and active in the communities she lives in, she has volunteered and worked in both local and international organizations and currently pursuing her Masters in International Development at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in which she interned with Restless Development South Africa.