Youth Work And Gender Justice Go Hand In Hand – Interview with Julie Thekuddan

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Youth work and gender justice are incomplete without each other. Whether you’re a youth worker or a young person leading a social enterprise, at some point of time you will interact with donors and investors.

Knowing what kind of initiatives donors are interested in is crucial for your organisation’s sustainability. Oxfam India has been supporting ComMutiny’s project Amplifying Youth Voices for Gender Justice & Social Inclusion since the last 3 years.

In this interview, Julie Thekuddan, Gender Justice Lead Specialist at Oxfam India gives us an insight into the mind of a big organisation. She has been working on women’s rights and gender equality for 15 years. She specialises in programme design & implementation, capacity building, policy advocacy, campaigning and strategic engagements.

Youth Work and Gender Justice

Q: Why do you think youth led development is important?

Young people have their own ideas and opinions about what is important to them. We need to open our minds and understand their perspectives on development. With a greater interaction with young men and women as part of its campaigns, this thinking will shift in the future.

At Oxfam India, we have looked at youth leadership in our previous strategy. With the change in our strategy in 2015, we discontinued our direct work on youth leadership. We felt that it would be a cross cutting theme and therefore, needs to be integrated by all themes. However this was easier said than done.

Our Gender Justice team at Oxfam works on combating the issue of domestic violence. As a part of this effort, we provide support to women who have faced domestic violence. But we realised it was not enough. We needed to talk to the larger community.

Over the past 2-3 years, we have included men in our target audience. Within that category, we work with adolescent boys and young men. By doing that, we’re aiming to challenge the existing social norm of violence against women.

If we want to change the social norm, we need to talk to people who are ready for change.

We run a campaign called Bano Nayi Soch through which we work with men between the ages of 18 to 29 years. We see that this age group of people are ready to change as compared to the older lot who are fixed in their way of thinking.

But the challenge with this campaign thinking is that it is not purely youth led. However, it does involve youth. At some point of time in the future, we would like to include young designed and led initiatives.

Q: How is youth leadership connected to gender justice in India?

We have seen the growth of a lot of young women leaders who are taking a stand on violence against women. What we have seen is fewer men taking leadership or supporting such initiatives. You can see men’s involvement in bits and pieces of the equation. It has to get converted into a sustained effort from the community.

There is immense potential and scope for young people to be gender justice advocates. This will cause some sort of churning because they will be challenging existing ideas and notions that a community has for them. There will be a lot of backlash.

Having said that, the potential for youth led (which includes both women and men) initiatives for gender justice is there and has to be tapped much more.

Q: Do you think the interdependence of youth work and gender justice has been underestimated in the past?

Youth work and gender justice go hand in hand. However, it has not been so in the past because of our society’s mindset to a large extent. Indian society is not very encouraging about leadership from a young age. The same can be said about gender justice issues.

We’re not very open and exposed to the idea of working with young people due to the hierarchical system we follow. In the past, we haven’t taken to time to create the category of youth as citizens. And we don’t know what is it that they’re thinking about.

Over the years, there has been this realisation that only the young and perhaps the old are willing to change because they really have nothing to lose. That’s why a total mind shift has to occur.

You can already see how young people are bringing about change by using digital media. They have opened up dialogues about many issues on social media. The idea that youth have to first prove their self-worth, legitimacy, name and honor has already been challenged. This is clear evidence that young people can bring about change.

5th Space

Q: What is your understanding of the 5th space?

The 5th space is a place that exists outside the four spaces a young person inhabits. These are family, friends, livelihood/education and leisure.

It’s a space where young people can come together to think about where they are located in the larger world of change and their contribution to it.

Personally, I haven’t been through any of these processes. I was in a youth group in my church community but it had limited outreach. When I was younger, a relative of mine pushed me to explore this space but I didn’t discover it then.

It was only when I joined Oxfam India that I learnt about the 5th space. I wish I had known about it when I was younger so that I could have contributed to it.

Q: What is the role of the 5th Space in establishing and embedding youth work?

The 5th space has demonstrated itself as a methodology or platform for getting youth led work out there.

Embedding youth work in our programmes is required because typically organisations like mine don’t have enough young people. The average age of an employee at Oxfam India is above 30.

It is crucial to have the 5th space to expose the older generation to what youth thinks is important for them as opposed to older people thinking that they know it all.

Q: What do you think about the current state of 5th space in India? How can it be made more engaging and impactful?

I feel that the young people in India are expressing themselves much more than ever before. They are far more clued in about protests and they share their opinions on social media freely. However, youth action is largely restricted to online spaces.

As I see it, there are two kinds of youth. They are:

  1. Young people who take the whole idea of contribution to society much more seriously.
  2. And then there is the other half who are completely cut off from the conversation about social change.

I am not judging the second kind. Maybe we are like that because of our conditioning. Perhaps we learnt that these are not the issues we should speak about.

Another thing I have observed is that there is a lack of structure in the 5th space.  Young people enter the 5th space when they get associated with organisations like CYC. But how many CYC’s are there in the world…

What we need is more organisations like CYC. In today’s time, with the shrinking of civil society spaces and reduced resources, we’re in a difficult situation.

That is why I am fascinated with the work CYC is doing by incubating youth-led social enterprises that want to bring change. This needs to be encouraged a lot more.

Oxfam India’s Role in Youth Work

Q: How has Oxfam India contributed to youth work and gender justice in India, knowing the fact that it is not mainstream?

In the past, Oxfam India’s contribution has been in the capacity of a donor to encourage the possibility of youth work. For example, we were with CYC in the the publication of the book Ocean In a Drop, which explained the idea of the 5th Space and the importance of youth led development.

Oxfam India has been supporting CYC’s work for the past 3 years through the ‘Amplifying Youth Voices for Gender Justice and Social Inclusion’ project. We’ve also come up with ideas on ways to incorporate actions on gender or women’s rights within this project. We appreciate the openness and work CYC is doing to integrate women’s rights into the Samvidhan LIVE – The Jagrik Project and change how young people are looking at women’s rights.

Note: You can buy the book Ocean In A Drop on Amazon.

Q: Tell us about your favourite youth workers or social entrepreneurs who’re working in the area of gender justice.

There are a number of campaigns/projects/organisations in and outside India which I find impressive. They are:

Q: What are your top tips for youth workers?

There are 2 things I want to tell youth workers:

  • The work you are doing is very commendable. I have immense respect for young people who can take a plunge into the 5th space.
  • Keep at it. The world is full of old cynics. But there are a few of us out there making a difference. Take strength from that and do what you can. Your impact will grow eventually.

Youth Work & Donors

Q: What do donors or collaborators look forward to when considering supporting youth-centric initiatives?

Donors find it exciting to collaborate with youth centric organisations like CYC in campaigns. Big organisations can at times tend to be bureaucratic and keep supporting the tried and tested models for change. Due to the fact that Oxfam has been undertaking a large campaign since last year, when there is a fit in the manner of campaigning, we derived a lot of excitement and energy from youth designed and led initiative.

Oxfam India currently does not have a strategy for engaging youth. To change our way of working, an organization like CYC may need to handhold organisations like ours.

The big question we’ll face in the future is whether we go on supporting youth-led organisations or do we need to include youth in our agenda setting itself? Some of the Oxfam offices in other countries have involved youth actively in their work but Oxfam India is yet to shift its thinking to youth designed initiatives and develop that into a full-fledged youth strategy.

You can follow Julie on Twitter @JulieThekuddan.

Did you enjoy reading this interview? Then go ahead and share it with other youth workers and social entrepreneurs on Facebook and Twitter. Also, don’t miss this useful post on 9 unique youth leadership capacities.

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