The boys talk the talk: Young women’s restricted role in Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights work 



Women’s autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives largely remains constrained. This is not only exclusive to developing nations, but a global phenomenon. It was only a year ago when we were rightly disturbed by the Roe vs Wade headlines affecting women’s reproductive rights in the United States. Indeed, compared to young men, young women face multiple forms of gendered discrimination, ranging from cultural to legal, political and socio-economic.
The field of Adolescent & Youth Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (AYSRHR) is no stranger to this reality as it gravely affects many young women working in the sector. Even more concerning, there aren’t enough policies, structures, or systems in place to protect these women.
And so, it is essential that we not only recognize the impact of systemic gender inequities on the experiences of women, girls and gender-diverse youth in SRHR but also take action to address them.

According to our informants, young men are better at ‘talking the talk,’ even if it’s often young women who are ‘walking the walk’ – and this, too, both reflects and contributes to a vicious cycle of gender inequality in the SRHR workplace.

– Excerpt from the Gender in SRHR paper –

The YIELD Project conducted a deep dive into this global phenomenon and compiled a comprehensive research report which inspired our first Action Learning Cycle at the YIELD Hub, with 6 participating institutions. This blog offers an outline of the key points highlighted in the report and outlines the proposed interventions and systemic transformations required.

As a young woman leader in the SRHR space, we asked *Esi what significant challenges she’s had to face personally. The short video of her reflections are a reminder of how far we still have to go. Throughout the blog, we also share insights from the Action Learning Group (ALG) members of Cycle 1 who addressed the gender discrimination and exclusion experienced by young female and gender-diverse youth leaders in AYSRHR.

Exploring the depth of the problem

Unequal power relations, a lack of resources and threats of violence make it difficult for young women to have equal agency or to access opportunities and grow in the SRHR field. 
Inequitable gender norms hold young women back in multiple, intersecting ways. This is especially true for girls and young women living in traditional societies or vulnerable communities in the Global South. 

These inequalities are part of larger social and structural barriers informed by gatekeepers who mediate many aspects of young women’s lives. These gatekeepers include parents, caregivers, and other family members; “duty bearers” like teachers and religious leaders; and men and boys.  
Educational and professional opportunities are harder to access for young women. Young men experience greater professional rewards for engaging in SRHR efforts than young women do. Additionally, young women run higher risks as a result of their engagement. For example, young female leaders experience incidents of violence and coercion—ranging from workplace and cyber bullying to sexual harassment at international conferences. 
Young women face widespread violence and coercion in multiple professional contexts—and are poorly supported in the aftermath of these incidents.  

Many smaller organizations do not have clear safeguarding policies; many larger organizations require young women to cut through so much red tape that the process can become re-victimizing.  

“Young leaders become leaders because they want to change the system. The main goal should be for all young people to become leaders regardless of their gender or background.”

– ALG Member –

Exploring potential solutions  

YIELD makes use of a comprehensive process map to spotlight solutions to the intersecting issues outlined above.
This requires greater inclusion of young women in the design and full implementation of SRHR programming; the development of more effective recruitment and referral processes; as well as the cultivation of more inclusive and sustainable pipelines for young female leaders. 

SRHR should also provide successive opportunities for development, training and advancement for young female leaders and advocates. 
This requires establishing and implementing institutional policies and practices that directly address gender inequality and how it plays out in organizations. 

Keeping young women protected and safe by implementing explicit, effective, and responsive organizational safeguarding policies that include formal reporting and support systems. 

Mainstreaming female leadership by propelling women into power at all levels to foster stronger organizational cultures, more enduring organizations, and more support for girls and young women. 

Fairly compensating young women for their work and shifting the funding paradigm to get more money into the hands of their organizations.  
This requires organizations to deliberately foster connections between women to allow them to support and learn from one another while advancing in the field.  

Creating formal mentoring arrangements as a means of instilling confidence, sharing learning, and identifying ongoing professional opportunities. 

Tracking the gendered experiences, perceptions, and impacts of young women working in SRHR, with particular attention to how gender disparities operate in local contexts and affect underserved populations. 

“It’s interesting to talk about the informality of structures and how that almost gives away some more exploitation of young feminists who work in social movement organizations. Decision-making spaces may not necessarily be open to young women, even though, it is young women that really do the day-to-day running of the organization; not just implementation but the thought-partnership and the partnership relationships with community.”

– ALG Member –

Walking the walk

By the end of their Collective Action Learning Cycle, ALG Members designed and are implementing practical action plans to; move beyond the binary to ensure youth leadership represents young people in all their diversity; to integrate young people in governance structures; and establish youth partnerships that are meaningful, equal and mutually beneficial.  

In the end, we need to give young women and gender-diverse youth opportunities and resources to develop their skills and contribute their voices to the sector. This means working together to break down the barriers that limit their participation and ensure greater equality at all levels. 

At the YIELD Hub, we recognize the impact of systemic gender inequities on the experiences of women, girls, and gender-diverse youth in the SRHR space and that now is the time to find practical solutions to these challenges. We aim to achieve progress through the action learning groups, bringing stakeholders to the same table and providing them with the tools and resources to advance youth partnership within the ecosystem.