"Our advocates are so vibrant and vocal, but we know they won't always be there and so mentoring should always be a process, a chain, where one person is mentoring the next for sustainability."
"You have to trust yourself, as a young person you are in the best position to speak for young people."
A lot of my work with the ATHENA Network is focussed on youth advocacy, especially on the Link Up programme which I have blogged about before. Link Up is a project designed to advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people in five countries - Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda. ATHENA's role as a policy partner is to promote the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people in global policy processes through research and advocacy, and to support and enable young people to take part in these processes and speak for their own experiences.
I have written before about how 'youth participation' is increasingly on the global HIV agenda, but how in practice this is often flawed. Youth advocates often are brought into policy spaces but given inadequate support, limited platforms or directed in what to say - rather than being given an equal space. One route to addressing these challenges is through mentoring for youth advocates, providing peer-to-peer learning and support.
Recently, I travelled to Uganda to co-facilitate a workshop on youth mentoring. This is part of a mentorship programme ATHENA is leading with GYCA, through Link Up. The purpose of the mentoring programme is to create a workshop guide and resource to support mentoring for youth advocacy, which enables youth advocates to share and exchange skills, build confidence to participate in advocacy and policy and to support meaningful participation to realise their rights.
The Uganda workshop took place in Kampala, over 3 days in June. 30 youth advocates took part, forming mentoring pairs and teams to develop their skills and create a programme of ongoing mentoring support.
One participant at the workshop, Mariam, said:
"Being involved in the mentoring workshop created a foundation for me as a young advocate. First of all l went in as a mentee and came out as a mentor, which created a big impact in my life because now l can advocate for my rights in my community. Through mentoring workshop I am now able to mentor others, l learnt how to come up with a work plan including goals which are easy to achieve. I was able to understand and differentiate between advocacy and mentorship. I got new friends through the workshop which enabled me to share different ideas with them so l gained knowledge. Through the mentoring workshop guidelines and ideas I am able to mentor people - mostly young key population in my community."
This kind of mentoring programme is useful for all advocates - whether it's seeking the advice of a seasoned conference participant on how to get your questions heard, or finding someone who understands the workings of the UN system to guide you in making an impact. For youth advocates, it's especially vital, for two reasons. Firstly, gaining from the knowledge and experience of more experienced youth advocates helps to build confidence and skills, ensuring youth advocates can make the most of opportunities and spaces they have access to. The more effectively youth advocates use these chances and spaces, the more will be opened up. Right now, for example, though it's starting to become more common for young people to be invited into platforms focussed on young people, there are still huge barriers to inclusion elsewhere - so for example we might see a youth co-chair in the session on young people at the conference, but not in the sessions on health policy, maternal care, or treatment access - which all also affect young people.
Secondly, the key difference between youth advocacy and other areas of advocacy is that it comes with a time limit. An advocate who speaks effectively for and represents young people when they're 25 no longer does so at 35. This highlights the 'multiplier effect' that is crucial in youth advocacy - we need more youth advocates, and for older youth advocates to mentor and support younger people to ensure knowledge and skills are passed on, as well as opportunities. Mentoring also provides a continuity to the youth advocacy movement, ensuring the history and context of the movement is carried forward, and provides connections to support 'aged out' youth advocates to move into other advocacy spaces.
It is essential that youth advocates are involved in every facet of the HIV response, and engaged in policy and advocacy at all levels. It is also essential that these advocates are skilled, supported and mentored to ensure that they can both personally gain from the opportunities they access, and make the biggest impact. More, we need to commit to the 'multiplier effect' - ensuring that more, younger advocates are brought through, representing young people in all of their diversity.