Why “Empowerment” is no longer enough

By Rameesha Qazi, Rosalyn Martin, and Olivia Compton, members of the Canadian Coalition for Youth, Peace and Security (CCYPS)’s Government Advocacy Working Group. Their opinions may not reflect the views of all CCYPS members. Read their submission to Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy here, and follow @Canada_YPS on Twitter here.

Youth are sometimes “consulted” on institutional processes regardless of sector, as both a funding requirement and a box to check off on a to-do list. Traditionally, youth voices, lived experiences, and perspectives are not inherently valued by those in positions of power, nor are our informed opinions taken seriously. That must change as we move forward with our feminist foreign policy and post-COVID recovery plans: youth must hold an integrated and unconditional seat at decision making tables to ensure sustainability and effectiveness in the world we want to build.

Why the world needs more Youth, Peace and Security:

Investing in youth, and more specifically, making calculated efforts to understand and appreciate the experiences of women, 2SLGBTQ+, BIPOC and otherwise marginalized identities are essential components to providing heightened autonomy for youth-led projects and peacebuilding efforts. Youth-based initiatives and organizations working in local communities to build strong economic systems for young people are a significant contributor to the elimination of barriers to entry to the YPS sphere. Further, youth-led advocacy on the reduction and elimination of sexual and gender-based violence within peacebuilding initiatives must be recognized as essential efforts to cement policies of gender parity and equity within Peace and Security to ensure that all voices are being heard.

The synergies between the Women, Peace and Security and YPS agendas seek to challenge complications and barriers of access participation in regional and global peace and security agendas. Traditional discrimination and exclusion in the Peace and Security communities, based on gender identity and age, is often rooted in the perceived lack of ‘value’ within youth contributions, which is traditionally defined by those with inherent power and total autonomy. The creation of networks that amplify Peace and Security work established by women, gender-queer people, and youth must continue to work in conjunction with one another to foster intersectional approaches, heighten visibility, validate new perspectives, celebrate diverse peacekeeping contributions while challenging dynamics of power within the sector. Creating further opportunity for those traditionally excluded from ‘high-level’ and ‘elite’ peace and security communities establishes platforms to redefine spaces in which work presented by young peacebuilders, women, and gender-queer people are inherently and unconditionally valid, regardless of normalized exclusion or dismissal based on identity. 

As COVID-19 has exacerbated a digital gap for those in lower-income or rural communities, the Peace and Security community should continue to ensure unconditional access to potentially life-saving and life-altering information and technology, which directly impacts the lives of youth leaders and community members. 

Grassroots and youth-led movements need dedicated and directed support with significant financing and sustained resources, including core monetary support, to ensure delivery of services, programming and assistance. In order to recognize the full potential of youth leaders, grants supporting work centred in development, community and peacebuilding must be fully accessible to youth within the Peace and Security agendas. Organizations need to begin prioritizing the work of women, Black, Indigenous and Peace of Colour (BIPOC), and youth-led initiatives through increased adaptability, collaboration and implementation through intersectional analysis. Funding and requirements should be context-specific and not over-burdensome for local grassroots organizations – a fundamental part of eliminating barriers to entry. We stress the need to recognize and mainstream Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) principles in all new work moving forward, including key synergies between YPS and Women, Peace and Security (WPS), in its inception, implementation, funding, and monitoring.

We wish to offer an alternative to the heavily referenced concept of top-down empowerment, often centred in governmental, institutional donor-driven projects which traditionally tokenize or misrepresent youth advocacy efforts.

Empowerment isn’t what you think it is:

Empowerment is defined as “authority or power given to someone to do something.” This heavily relies on autonomy being given through a hierarchy, and more often than not through patriarchy. The reliance on autonomy being given through a hierarchy, patriarchy and hegemony are inherently problematic and infers a lack of autonomy, ability, and independence for youth stakeholders and their allies.

If we accept that “empowering” means giving people, young people and more specifically marginalized young people, the power to do something, we reaffirm the understanding that despite well placed intentional international institutions, humanitarian organizations, and multilateral peacekeeping efforts typically lack the authority to actually give power to those they are aiming to empower. With this in mind, the use of a “youth empowerment” framework or mindset cannot coexist with autonomously youth-led community building, advocacy or peace efforts.

Instead, we ask that the development sector, especially the Peace and Security arms, move to a place where language focused on uplifting and elevating women, girls, gender-Queer and otherwise marginalized communities through encouraging autonomy, rather than empowerment, as a top priority. By changing the narrative we are allowing those with lived experiences and community-based knowledge to take control of the way in which their community is progressing and how international institutions engage with this growth. Most importantly though, we are acknowledging existing power that is often ignored in Peace and Security decision-making, young people, to have an autonomous and valued voice in how to effectively and sustainably move forward during times of unrest, uncertainty and unfamiliarity. 

The changing narrative also ensures the recognition of agency and values presently active contributions from young people within various aspects of global and local communities. Youth autonomy does not specifically seek to make youth stronger under the standards maintained by international institutions but seeks equity, valued recognition and autonomy across the board. Youth are already strong advocates within the peacekeeping sector but there needs to be radical institutional change that recognizes them as such. Going beyond creating a place at the table and broadening the expanding horizons of the Peace and Security agendas to actively include marginalized and youth voices are essential to the implementation of strong, intersectional peacekeeping efforts within the 21st century. If development overall, Peace and Security specifically, aims to empower many different actors we can also assume that by changing the narrative all youth will be uplifted to use their voices beyond just being tokenized.

We need to ensure that Youth, Peace and Security efforts are mainstreamed into all Peace and Security efforts, present and going forward and that existing policies and procedures are updated to reflect this shift in priorities. Simultaneously, there must be a transformation in language focused on being more deliberate and consistent across all Peace and Security efforts. This will allow youth a more concrete and impactful seat at the table where decisions are being made and change is happening.

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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