Building on young people’s experiences
Almost immediately after the partnership between MBSSE and Plan had been established, Plan’s existing Youth Advisory Panel was brought on board to make sure that the experiences of young people would inform the initiative from the outset.
“We asked them to give input to the selection criteria and the roadmap for the establishment process. They showed a lot of interest and went on to form their own coordination group so that they could advice on the entire process,” says Evariste Sindayigaya, country director at Plan International Sierra Leone. “In one of the first meetings, they even asked for a consultation meeting with the minister himself, to make sure their recommendations would be considered.”
During the consultation, the young people reminded the minister that traditional norms that ascribe greater value to the voices of elders, combined with a drive to satisfy donors focusing on youth empowerment, have often led to tokenistic youth inclusion.
“It is not enough for young people to sit at the table if they are not heard. I believe our Youth Advisory Panel is a brilliant example of how you can work with young people in a meaningful way, and we are excited to be able to show MBSSE how easy it can be to bring us into decision making,” says Mariam Samai, a Youth Advisory Panel member.
Meaningful and safe youth engagement
Establishing a Youth Advisory Group requires commitment, time, funds and buy-in from everyone involved—especially ministry staff who are not used to working directly with young people. Acknowledging and managing young people’s expectations, and discussing their role and commitment, are also important at this stage.
“When working with young people, you must be flexible in terms of how and when to engage them. Maybe they will lose income if they don’t go to work in order to attend an activity, so at a minimum, all their expenses must be reimbursed. They may also have classes to attend during the day. We dealt with that by holding some of our meetings through WhatsApp voice notes,” says Kamanda Kamara, youth engagement officer at Plan International Sierra Leone.
Finally, it is crucial to set up strong standards and procedures for safeguarding and to make sure that both staff and young people themselves know and understand how to react if young people feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This is particularly important in the political space:
“We fear that children and young people might be influenced to take political sides that may affect their participation,” Mariam Samai says. “Young people can only meaningfully participate in an environment where they feel confident to express their views and safe among the people they work with, so there should be no compromise on safeguarding.”
The initiative is still in its early stages, but interest is swiftly gathering across and outside Sierra Leone, especially after Sierra Leone’s president, Dr. Julius Maada Bio, mentioned the Youth Advisory Group at the 2022 AU-EU High Level Policy Dialogue on Science, Technology and Innovation.
In response, Minister Sengeh said: