As a gender and development practitioner who works specifically with girls and young women who are under 18 years of age, I get asked a lot about what i take into consideration when developing or advising others on the development of a program to empower girls in living poverty. My response? there are many things to take into account, but first and foremost, consider whether your intervention might put them at risk. if the answer is yes, and ofttimes it will be especially if the program is gender transformative, i.e. challenging existing power structures, then one must honestly consider whether the risk level is acceptable and what if anything can be put in place to mitigate this risk.
When we’re working on challenging gender norms and changing social behaviors, we are actively disrupting the status quo. and this can make some people resistant, uncomfortable, fearful or even violent. especially those who are in positions of power, and who might feel like this power is being directly or indirectly challenged. for instance, a woman finding gainful employment or joining a savings groups which gives her control over her income might experience backlash from her spouse, children or the wider community.
Working with those who are under 18 requires that we consider their evolving capacity to handle such risks and the consequences to their lives. different age groups are at different cognitive and behavioral development stages and that’s a hugely important factor to consider. for instance, sex education curricula will not be the same for early adolescents (10/11-14) and late adolescents (14-18) who are most likely already sexually active.
Children and young people are also still considered legal wards of their families and care-takers, and so any intervention that involves them necessarily involves more than just one individual. this is an important point that often differentiates working with children and youth from working with adults. Any program that involves children and youth, also requires informed consent, which depending on the program can be a huge sticking point.
After establishing the unique parameters of working with under 18’s, we come to the issue of risk. how to define what’s too great a risk, and what can conceivably be seen in the context of our work to transform relations between the sexes, as the acceptable cost of doing business?
To paraphrase from my favorite show – when it comes to risk in programming with girls, when is a risk too risky?
The first part of this answer is philosophical and ethical. From a child protection perspective you could say that ensuring every part of a program is ‘in the best interest of the child’ is paramount. From a social change perspective you could say that empowering children to speak out and affect change trumps an (ofttimes) paternalistic child protection approach which would deny the child a chance to exercise their agency. both of these need to be taken into consideration in terms of the goals of a program. for instance, if the goal is to change social norms by organizing a group of girl advocates who will speak out against early pregnancy in their communities, then one must weigh the risk of community backlash with the real possibility that this kind of work could save lives.
There’s no easy answer, and ‘doing no harm’ is above all our main objective, though we must weigh the likelihood and severity of risks in light of the potential transformative change our project could achieve. I would also add, again, that any intervention which seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms carries inherent risks. For me that is a given, however, there are clear ways in which these risks can be substantially reduced through effective programming, even if not eliminated altogether.
The second part of this answer is technical. Any self respecting organization will conduct risk analyses for programs, initiatives, events or engagements involving young people. this is the best space to evaluate the risk levels and agree on mitigation steps. an example of a risk assessment (for an event) will look something like this:
Even visually, color coding a risk assessment can offer a good ‘at glance’ measure for deciding whether the risk levels are too high – if half the document is red, then you should go back to the drawing board.
Finally, I would also suggest that a good way of evaluating risk to young people or children can be done by including them in program design. working with children and young people is the best way to gain insights into their lived realities and ensure any intervention is tailored to address their experiences as they perceive them. this is especially relevant when working with adolescent girls, since they will experience different social pressures depending on cultural context and are best placed to gauge the reactions of their families, communities and peers to any actions they will take to challenge the patriarchal status quo.