The power of the pack

December 14, 2021

By Laura Brazee and Erin DeGraw

First published on the Health Policy Plus website.  

Throughout the world there’s a saying — “it takes a village to raise a child” — referring to how an entire community works together to rear children into thriving young adults. The same can be said for mentoring young people to become effective advocates. Young advocates need collective support to build their skills and confidence, open doors to create advocacy opportunities and develop lasting relationships that continue to support future advocacy efforts.

As part of its intergenerational mentorship activity, the Health Policy Plus project convened a powerful group of female sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) trailblazers in Malawi. Their task? Mentor emerging young advocates who are seeking to influence and advance the SRHR policies and practices that impact their lives. This village of mentors knew each other well, not just from working in the SRHR policy advocacy space for decades, but because they trained together, through previous Palladium-led health policy projects, to strengthen women’s roles and voices in advocacy and accountability. They mentored each other to become strong advocates working with national, district and village decisionmakers to improve SRHR policies for women and girls. They have continued to work as a team to help the government deliver on commitments outlined in Malawi’s Family Planning 2030 agenda.

They’re a powerful pack who together have crafted a vision for how they would mentor emerging young advocates, help them influence policymakers and bring more youth voices into SRHR spaces where they’re typically excluded. By working collectively and actively supporting each other, the mentors were able to reach four of their goals, as described next.

Mentors and mentees attend an event together.

Goal 1: Help young advocates strengthen their advocacy networks and establish rapport with a diverse group of stakeholders.

Mentors started out by analyzing their own SRHR networks and identified opportunities that would bring needed youth perspectives into spaces dominated by adults, but would also strengthen the advocacy skills and regional networks of their mentees. For example, mentors Tawonga and Jenipher collaborated to nominate three mentees to participate in a multi-day workshop focused on feminist movement building. The workshop was designed to create safe spaces for young women to organize against patriarchal structures and focused on increasing the inclusion of voices of young women that are excluded and marginalized. This opportunity was the perfect space for the mentees to network with leading advocates for girls and women and gain a better understanding of how others collect valid data to support their advocacy efforts.

The mentors also recognized their mentees’ need for frequent exposure to policymakers, not only to build their confidence in engaging with leaders but to help decisionmakers view young people as credible and valued stakeholders with relevant and innovative ideas. Mentoring team Ethel and Agnes made it their mission to work together to invite their mentees to community events where they knew policymakers would be present. They organized side meetings for mentees and used their professional status and connections to get their mentees on meeting agendas. By accompanying their mentees to these meetings, Agnes and Ethel didn’t just create advocacy opportunities, they helped to initiate conversation and develop rapport and respect with stakeholders at all levels.

Goal 2: Pivot advocacy efforts to quickly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 took hold in Malawi, mentors immediately came together to devise a plan to keep their mentees engaged. Velia and Ndidza recognized that through their professional affiliations and networks almost all mentors were involved in the regional and national response clusters that convened weekly to inform, contribute and coordinate COVID-19 response plans. When discussed with the other mentors and mentees, they decided they would approach the response clusters to bring youth voices into weekly meetings to influence how SRHR was incorporated into response plans and ensure the youth voices were heard and their needs addressed.

With the support of his mentor, Mariana, and working with the district council, Reuben advocated for increased funding to support community-based distribution of contraceptives to youth during the pandemic. Through his advocacy work, the Salima District Council allocated 1.5 million MWK ($1,825 USD) to the youth department to support their SRHR activities as part of the COVID-19 response plan.

Goal 3: Provide consistent local support to young advocates, even as young people move throughout the country.

Over the course of the program, mentees found themselves moving to different parts of the country for personal, academic and professional opportunities. Mentors were prepared to offer remote support but found that in-person engagement yielded more effective results. When mentees moved, mentors quickly mobilized to ensure mentees could access the local support networks needed to advance their policy advocacy plans. When Pandora moved from Karonga to Mzuzu, her mentor, Tawonga, connected with another mentor, Margaret, who helped Pandora change her advocacy focus to support the youth-friendly health services coordinator to gather data on the provision of youth-friendly services across several health centers in her new district. The data showed that most health centers lacked a youth-friendly health services corner, limiting access to SRHR services for young people. With this new data and the support of the mentors, Pandora was able to quickly adapt her advocacy plan to support an important issue in her new community without losing momentum.

Goal 4: Create an atmosphere of cohesiveness, helping to build a new cadre of tight knit advocates that will continue to work together to create change.

Recognizing the impact of their collective strength, the mentors encouraged the mentees to collaborate on their advocacy efforts, guiding them to work as a cohesive unit. In Blantyre, mentors and mentees recognized that the needs of adolescent girls living with disabilities were often not addressed, and this was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the mentors supported a group of five mentees from the southern region to engage with traditional and religious leaders to advocate for inclusion of adolescent girls living with disabilities in district response plans. Their collective advocacy efforts secured protective equipment for households with disabled children and prompted traditional leaders to conduct a community meeting to raise awareness of the specific SRHR risks and needs of adolescent girls living with disabilities during COVID-19, with support from the mentees. As part of the meeting, the leaders and mentees also helped link adolescent girls with the local health center to increase their access to youth-friendly services.

Great mentorship is more than just having connections and a powerful position — it is about opening doors and finding solutions to get your mentee a seat at the table. As the mentors demonstrated, a great mentor works with their whole village to find and create opportunities to bring youth into adult spaces. They are devoted to their mentees’ success and go the extra mile to help mentees engage and build rapport with stakeholders at all levels. Mentors can be a powerful force for change to support a new generation of unified advocates to push for policies and programs that meet young people’s SRHR needs.