Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

Soft skills and enabling environments for youth economic empowerment

As you may have read in my previous posts, I participated in Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference from September 7-9. Some of the most interesting points for me were the emphases on seeing youth as assets, specialized and focused efforts with girls, and the gaps and bridges that technology can create and span for girls.

A last point I want to bring up is the need for ’soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’ in addition to the specific ‘hard skills’ like vocational training, specific job skills, computer training, etc. The importance of ‘soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’ was  mentioned in pretty much every session that I attended.

Soft skills. It seems obvious, but in addition to knowing how to cut hair, fix a car, run a small business, develop computer software, repair mobile phones, do construction, or work at a store, an office, a factory or whatever, young people need to learn ‘soft skills.’  Soft skills include good attitudes towards work and learning, good interpersonal relationships, self-esteem and confidence, decision-making and all kinds of skills that don’t only help youth succeed at generating income, but that help them negotiate a variety of situations in their lives. Sometimes these are called ‘life skills’, and they are critical elements of holistic youth focused programs.

Most youth development approach programs, whether aimed at economic empowerment or striving for other goals, are about helping youth strengthen these types of skills. At the personal level, most of the work I’ve been involved in over the past several years is along these lines, but via the use of technology, arts and media and involvement in youth-led advocacy or youth-led community development activities. The results are similar however —  youth learn to have self-confidence and they feel valued, they have a sense of group belonging and safety, they learn to speak in public, interact confidently with each other and with adults, they find a space where they can say what they think without being shy, boys and girls learn to work together and better understand each other, and youth learn to negotiate and broker with those who have power. Combined with financial literacy, specific job training and skills related to work and business, these skills are what make young people more successful when trying to earn a living, whether it’s in the formal or informal sector. They also help youth to navigate and overcome some of the challenges and barriers that they encounter. In addition, having trusted adult mentors who they can turn to for support can help ease their way.

Enabling environment. Youth can learn all the soft skills and vocations they want, but if the environment that surrounds them is not conducive to their well-being, if adults do not respect and value them, if there are no broader supportive systems and opportunities for youth to link into, they will be primed for success, but they may not reach it, and this can lead to frustration and apathy. For this reason, the ‘enabling environment’ is a critical piece of these programs.

Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan Trust talked about the variety of skills and aspects that they focus on with adolescent girls and young women, and their communities, including:

  • Sense of self
  • Identity
  • Solidarity
  • Sense of place
  • Finding self and others who can be supportive
  • Changing and bringing women up to another level in the family and the community
  • Vocational skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Focus on rights and protection
  • Support and acknowledgment to the other elements of their lives
Youth Build and Catholic Relief Services shared their short document called Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods, which gives a clear set of promising practices for working with gang-involved youth. Each organization present at Making Cents had its own way of looking at or describing soft skills and enabling environments, but every successful program approach seemed to emphasize the need for both.

The development of soft skills goes hand in hand with seeing youth as assets and people in their own right, and with understanding that mere vocational training, or simply owning a mobile phone will not be enough for many adolescents and young people to achieve success. The focus on enabling environments shows an awareness that the context in which young people grow up is complex and needs to be seen as such, and that all levels and sectors need to be working together to support healthy, thriving and successful young people — from the individual youth, to the family, community, district, national and global levels, and from the cultural to the educational to private enterprise and government and religious and civil society.


Technology gaps and bridges to girls’ economic empowerment

One of the great panels at last week’s Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference was on technology and youth economic opportunities. (See my previous posts on seeing youth as assets and barriers girls face to economic opportunities, and my next post on soft skills and enabling environments).

In addition to the specific panel, I paid special attention throughout the conference for any mention of technology, and I asked some questions in panels that were not related to technology to see if people thought technology was an enabler for adolescent  girls or if my perception is biased because it’s my area of focus.

What I heard is that in regard to girls and technology, there are large gaps as well as areas where technology can serve as a bridge for girls to achieve economic opportunities. As Wayan Vota from Inveneo noted, globally, women are 20% less likely to have a mobile phone than men and in Asia, that number rises to 37%. How can we address the ‘girl gap’ especially in terms of the poor and disadvantaged 10% of adolescent girls who are the most marginalized of all? How can we help bring economic opportunities to this group?

Girl-focused programs. In terms of helping girls feel more comfortable accessing and learning about technology, Peter Broffman from Intel brought up the importance of safe spaces. Intel’s Learn program creates spaces that are ‘girls only, where they are not competing with boys,’ he said. ‘It takes a concerted effort to construct comfortable environments where girls can explore technology.’ We have special days for girls and girls only projects. Girls tend to be more comfortable creating and using technology in that kind of environment,’ he said. Vota agreed, saying that one simple way of making spaces more amenable to girls is by having all the computer screens in a computer lab or cafe facing the public, so that it’s easy to monitor what is being done on them (eg., so that accessing ‘adult’ content is impossible to hide). Katherine Lucey from Solar Sister, in a separate panel, also referred to the need for programs that are specifically designed for girls and women. She described a microfinance program operating in one of the same communities as Solar Sister where 90% of the participants are male. ‘Solar Sister is a program aimed at women because the existing programs are biased towards men.’

Girls and women in rural areas. David Mukaru from Kenya’s Equity Bank said that the bank reaches more women and girls simply because  the majority of rural population in Kenya is made up of women. Many men have migrated to urban areas. ‘Through the financial education which the bank embarked on 3 years ago, we addressed technology fears. We were able to train the women, create awareness on bank services, train them how to use technology, how to interact with bank officials. We also introduced technology to the rural agency. The agency uses a mobile. The agency in the rural area is the normal shop keeper and he has become an agent of training and penetrating in the rural areas. This guy is in the rural shop and he trains the woman how to use these technologies to do banking.’

Mobility.  Mobile tech can really be the great leveler, according to Jacob Korenblum from Souktel. It can really help to close gender gap.  ’Many of the young women who use our services come from traditional families that would not allow them to go door to door to find employment. They are not allowed to go around town to find job opportunities. So their ability to find jobs is limited. But since many young women have mobile phones, within the household, as a young woman via Souktel you can start looking for work and even secure a job interview from home. Your family is comfortable with how you are doing this but you are still asserting yourself, you are taking that step to get a job.’

Another program that Souktel offers is support for women entrepreneurs via mobile phone groups. ‘Through a closed mobile phone peer network, women can ask questions to each other. In Iraq for example, women cannot travel, but they want to consult with other women on a business they are starting – they can send a question out to peers who can respond with advice. It’s like a list-serve via mobile phone. For female business owners, being able to consult peers via mobile is tremendous. It’s safe for them, it’s empowering. Our studies have shown this. We’ve been able to help women play catch up and access the same resources that men have, just through a different channel.’

Access is not enough. Raquel Barros from Lua Nova, a program that trains marginalized girls in Brasil to do construction work, said that in Brazil mobile phones are very expensive and they are a high status asset for the girls she works with. But ‘access is not sufficient for the phone to be used for something good or useful,’ she said. ‘It’s important to access the mobile phone but also important to do more education about how you can use the mobile phone. All our girls have Orkut but they don’t know their email. They have computers that they can use and we started to take some photos and that kind of thing, but the girls don’t always access and use mobiles and Internet in a good way. Access and education are both important.’ [Plan did some interesting research on girls use of technology in Brazil that confirms this also - see the Annex to Chapter 4.]

Technology as an economic enabler. Technology is everywhere according to Manjula Pradeep from Navsarjan, a trust that works with low-caste girls in India, “In Gujarat we have maximum mobile owners. The mobile is a status symbol, yes. In a family you can have 3-4 people owning a phone. And it does mean a lot when young women have mobiles, you can do your marketing, you have access to people, people can reach you on your mobile, you can put it on your shop board so people can reach you on mobile.’ In addition, computer training can allow girls to replicate and train others on computer skills. ‘A lot of girls have done computers; they are running classes for the children because children are not taught computers in schools. So the girls can teach this.’ However, as David Mukaru from Equity Bank in Kenya had noted earlier during the technology panel, ‘the challenge is access to a power supply.’ Not to mention other infrastructure. ‘When we work with the tribal populations, they have no access to transport, so how can you ever get a computer repaired?’ Some young people who Pradeep works with have started their own studios. ‘They start by buying a camera — it’s not cheap but they save and buy it. We have a lot of wedding ceremonies and rituals that happen that people can do a lot of video projects.’

Wearing pants. But as Pradeep said, technology can also bring about other personal changes. ‘Ultimately, your entire outlook changes with tech. Women with computers or cameras tend to wear trousers and shirts. I’ve seen women — if you get married you only have to wear saris, you can’t get out of a sari, you struggle with that identity — but these women are wearing trousers and using a camera. Sometimes they even cut their hair! Even just using a camera or cell phone,  you will see women changing. Technology really changes their role. To bring change, mobilizing the community is important but technology itself can also change the role of women.”

Interesting indeed!


Barriers to girls’ economic opportunities

As I wrote yesterday, I attended Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference last week on “Breakthroughs in Youth Enterprise, Workforce Development, Financial Services and Livelihoods”

Messages I took away included:

  • seeing youth as assets, not problems
  • the need for specialized and focused approaches to support girls
  • girls and technology – gaps and bridges
  • the importance of ‘soft skills’ and ‘enabling environments’

The Adolescent Girls and Young Women track started from the reality that girls face barriers to economic empowerment, but that there are some specific things that can be done to support them and things girls themselves can do to be more successful. Some k-nowledge that got dropped:

Barriers girls face to gaining employment. Barbara Chilangwa from CAMFED (and former Secretary of Education in Zambia) commented that barriers include girls’ lack of power and male domination; the fact that money is controlled by men, meaning women don’t have an opportunity to own anything; girls not attending school, and early marriage. “Girls’ education must be at the core of any country that wants to develop,” she said.

What do girls say? The team from BRAC in Tanzania presented their holistic life skills and job training program with adolescent girls. As a key step in their program, they consulted with girls on what they consider “the good life” and what challenges they face in trying to reach it. (See “Seeing youth as assets” – it’s important to involve young people in program design and decisions).

The girls considered the good life to include (in this order): health, education, work, house, good husband, loving family, good morals, peace in the family, peace in the community, cooperation and the absence of poverty.

The challenges to the good life that the girls noted were: early pregnancy; early marriage; bride price; gender discrimination; HIV and STIs; dropping out of school; alcohol and drugs; a complex family situation; poverty; a limited voice in the family; limited participation in the community; violence, rape or prostitution; limited opportunities for income generation and lack of opportunity for receiving training and loans.

Is 15 too late for girls? Judith Bruce from the Population Council focused on the message that once a girl hits puberty, she must fight for control of her own body, her sexuality, her fertility and her labor. “Most youth policies begin at 15, and this is 5 years too late for girls,” she said. “We need to invest in late childhood [starting at age 10], which is the critical period for girls.” Girls face intensified social exclusion during adolescent as their movement and mobility is restricted by family and community, Bruce said. In addition, there is a weak link between secondary school completion and earning for girls. “It’s difficult for females to control their earnings and other assets,” she noted. “This is something boys and men don’t have to deal with.” On top of that, there is a disproportionate dependency burden on females in both time and income.

Bruce said that the girls who are participating in financial services and different programs are those who have “survived girlhood,” overcoming a number of obstacles in order to enter into these programs. But what about the girls that don’t get into the programs that agencies design and develop, she wondered. We need to build social capital early, help girls develop friendship networks, provide regular safe spaces where girls can meet, provide female mentors, ensure they have personal documentation and safety nets, and support age-graded, gender and context specific financial literacy. “All girls should have small emergency savings and be introduced to goal-oriented savings,” she said. “This work is hard and costly and it matters who we invest in and work with.” She advocated that 12-year-old girls should the focus of economic opportunity programs.

Formal or informal? Mary Hallward-Driemeier from the World Bank gave some fascinating insight into gender inequities and where they occur. (I’m not sure which exact studies she was working from but perhaps start here or here). The Bank takes a holistic approach to economic opportunities, looking at human capital (education, training); access to assets (financial and physical); an enabling environment (cultural, social, business) and motivation (drive, connections, empowerment). In this context, gender and youth can matter, she said, both directly (girls and women face constraints because they are female and young) and indirectly (due to the nature of where young women are disproportionately active economically.

Once informal, always informal. Hallward-Driemeier brought out that the constraints that young women face are quite often based on the activities that they tend to go into. Small, informal sectors tend to be where women are working, and there is not much difference between genders within the sector, however more women end up in the informal sector, which is more challenging than the formal sector. So, it’s not about girls’ and women’s participation per se, it’s about helping girls and women move into higher value added activities. “There are not an awful lot of transitions. Once you are in a small, informal enterprise, it’s not likely that you will move out of this sector. This is why youth opportunities are critical to what girls will do with their futures.”

“Sextortion” was a new word I learned. It refers to the sexual harassment that girls and women often face when trying to get a job, eg., “I’ll give you a job but you must provide sexual favors if you want it.” Statistics seem to show that “sextortion” occurs more often in formal employment situations (in the context of HIV/AIDS work I’ve heard that this happens quite a bit in the informal sector also, though I have no studies to back this up). A woman may not be able to report this because her husband or family will no longer allow her to work, it can cause trouble for her, she can be blamed, she can be shamed or stigmatized by the community. A video shown by Youth Build/Catholic Relief Services in an unrelated session the following day included a concrete case of ‘sextortion’. The young Salvadoran woman featured in the video explained that she had studied auto mechanics and was unable to find a job. At the most recent interview she went to, she would have been required to sleep with the manager, so she declined it.

Discriminatory laws that make girls and women vulnerable. Another point that Hallward-Driemeier brought up was that in certain countries, customary and religious law is the formal constitutionally recognized law even though it is discriminatory against women. Marriage, land, property and inheritance are exempt from nondiscrimination and there is no recourse in most cases. She showed some very interesting graphics comparing head of household laws in low versus middle-income countries, and there is not much difference in terms of customary law across countries – discrimination against women is present in both.

Hallward-Driemeier shared some life decisions that can affect a woman’s ability to pursue opportunities or render her less or more vulnerable including:

  • Registering her marriage: legal rights and protections can vary based on whether a marriage is formally recognized by the state or not.
  • Her choice of marital property regime: Separate or community property have different implications for the control of property within marriage and the division of property in the case of divorce or inheritance.
  • Registering property jointly with her spouse: This can protect a woman if the marriage ends.
  • Registering her business in her own name:  So that she can have control as well as ownership of it.
  • Writing a will and having her husband write one too: So that she is legally protected in terms of land ownership, property, custody of children, etc.
It’s clear that the challenges and barriers that women girls face are in many cases much higher than those that men and boys face, but as Bruce said in her comments:  ”Girls are such performers!”  In the face of great obstacles, when given an opportunity, girls and young women most certainly can overcome them and shine.

Seeing youth as assets

Assets, contributors, thinkers and doers, not problems to be solved.

Making Cents International’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference happened last week (September 7-9). The focus of the conference was ‘Breakthroughs in Youth Enterprise, Workforce Development, Financial Services and Livelihoods.’ I attended most of the plenary sessions and followed the Adolescent Girls and Young Women track.

The main messages I took away from the 2 and a half day conference included:

Seeing youth as assets

The youth development approach has been around for quite a while, and some of the organizations and people I respect the most and have learned a lot from are those that use this approach with young people (shout out to one of my youth development approach mentors, Jeremy Phillips).  Still, it’s encouraging to hear big agencies like USAID talking about the youth development approach, emphasizing the importance of youth participation, seeing potential in the youth population, and working with youth as assets and valuable people in their own right with something to offer rather than fearing the ‘youth bulge’ and using a heavy-handed approach to control, contain and suppress young people, their voices, their needs and their rights.

Ambassador Donald Steinberg, deputy director of USAID, spoke on Wednesday morning, saying ‘If you stop looking at people as a development challenge or a threat, and instead see people’s potential to be something great, your perspective totally changes.’ USAID is doing their first ever youth in development policy and is working on integrating youth concerns into their 6 focus areas.

According to Clare Ignatowski, USAID’s Senior Advisor on Workforce Development and Youth, the agency’s positive youth development approach includes youth engagement and valuing youth as assets, ensuring multi-stakeholder participation, offering second chance opportunities for youth, and ‘engendering’ youth work. The idea is that by empowering youth and helping them have basic skills and opportunities; a sense of safety, structure, belonging and membership; self-worth and valuable opportunities to contribute; independence and control over own lives; a sense that they are competent and able to do something with their lives; and solid and supportive relationships – we can help young people make something out of their lives.

What role can technology play?

The youth and ICTs panel mentioned a few of the many areas where new technologies can be integrated in youth development work. To begin with, as moderator Wayan Vota from Inveneo mentioned, technology is one area where youth are viewed as experts over adults. They are often seen as thought leaders in ICTs. Via mobile phones, youth are starting to open bank accounts, according  to David Mukaru from Equity Bank in Kenya, and this is demystifying aspects of finances and banking, even in rural and slum areas.

There are challenges though, as Lia Gardner from TakingITGlobal reminded. ‘ICT is not a self-fulfilling circle; you can share great ideas but what about taking online connections into the offline world?’ Jacob Korenblum from Souktel  considered adults to be the biggest barrier. ‘Adults don’t see how tech can be leveraged and utilized for serious purposes. Older people really need to come on board and take youth seriously. Tech is a good way for youth to express views.’ Peter Broffman from Intel Learn Program recommended showcases with parents, teachers and community leaders to allow adults to see how youth and technology can be harnessed to address things that matter and to resolve problems in the community.

ICTs can also be used to engage youth and hear their voices and opinions. Korenblum commented that Souktel’s JobMatch idea was adapted and used to get feedback on 2 large-scale radio broadcast projects in Sudan and Somalia. The program implementers didn’t know what the audiences thought about the programs. Souktel developed a way for people to text in for free to give feedback. Some of the comments were selected and read out on the air. The texts began to inform the content of the radio programs. “We saw hundreds, even thousands of SMS coming in. In one case we had thousands of messages coming in from Orphans and Vulnerable Children [after we did a radio show on the topic]. They were saying ‘No one has ever asked me about my concerns, thanks for this radio show.’” In another case, thousands of people texted in saying they were not aware of the potential dangers of skin lightening creams. “We also had very frank and candid feedback like ‘you don’t represent enough Sudanese on your program.’ In Gaza we asked several thousand youth about the potential for a ceasefire. Youth wrote back their thoughts and said ‘this is the first time anyone has asked or cared about what I have to say.’” The feedback was shared with the television and radio stations so they could improve their programs, and in some cases it was played along the ticker tape on the bottom of Al Jazeera.

Mukaru commented that Equity Bank is known to be the ‘listening and caring financial partner’ in Kenya. ‘We listen to youth and clients. We have gone out to do focus group discussions to get to understand what youth are asking us to change, to do better, what they want to see in our services. We also use technology, SMS feedback. Our mobile phone number is displayed in our lobby where youth can interact with us and give their feedback. We’ve changed a number of things….They didn’t like our website – they said it’s too old, that it wasn’t talking to the youth. So we redesigned it to speak to the youth better. They said they want to bank small amounts of money and it costs them a lot to go into town, so this is why we started local agencies,’ he said.

It was encouraging to hear so many people highlighting the importance of the youth development approach and the fact that youth need to be listened to, respected and seen as valued partners in their own development as well as in the development of their communities and nations.

I’ll cover some of the other key take aways in my next few posts here on Wait… What?!


Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl