Founded in 2007, Youth Engage is a network for young people from the ages of 15 to 35 who are living with, affected by and/or wanting to be involved in the response to HIV in Zimbabwe. Now in its tenth year of existence, this youth-focused organization continues to grow and to gain momentum as a key advocate for young people in the country.
Youth Engage focuses on fostering advocacy and policy change around HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health as its niche area of intervention. While the organization’s focus is precise, its work is premised on a holistic understanding of young people’s lives, one that accounts for the broader social, political, cultural and economic landscape that shapes the experiences of young people, the choices that are available to them and their access to services.
The issues that affect young people are interlinked. You cannot disentangle employment from access to services. You need a systems thinking approach.
Ultimately, the goal of Youth Engage’s work is to create platforms and supports for young people to voice the concerns that are of importance to them and to effect change. Youth Engage acts as a liaison between young people and those who make the decisions that affect them, so that their perspectives can be accounted for in the creation of policies, programs and services.
Social media platforms are a key tool in Youth Engage’s work to engage, mobilize and advocate with and for young people. Here are some of the lessons that they have learned in the process of carrying out this work:
In Zimbabwe, as is the case in all other parts of the world, young people are finding ways to connect online. According to Charles Siwela, National Director of Youth Engage, young people are not so much interested in visiting websites and acquiring information in a passive manner. Rather, they want to be actively involved in an ongoing dialogue with their peers and other influencers. This helps to explain the ever-growing interest in and desire to utilize social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, interactive media where users can be consumers, producers and commentators of information all at once.
Youth Engage seeks to create opportunities for young people to be actively involved in voicing their opinions and thoughts on the issues that affect them. They do so by maintaining active social media platforms, including a busy @YouthEngageInfo and Facebook profile where they invite young people to comment, to share information, to complete surveys and to be aware of the various opportunities for engagement that are available to them. They invite young people to tweet when they are attending events or encountering situations of interest in their lives.
In addition to facilitating the ability for young people to speak to the issues that affect them in public fora, social media have become a very useful tool when it comes to reaching decision makers and leaders. Indeed, it is not only young people who are connected and using social media platforms in Zimbabwe, but the leadership is as well. In fact, social media have become a great tool to interact with parliamentarians and other politicians.
Everyone is interested to hear the voice of young people.
By tagging, tweeting and otherwise directing their messages to the people in positions of leadership and power in Zimbabwe, Youth Engage uses these platforms to share young people’s concerns and ideas and to let their presence be known. Prior to the advent of these social media platforms, in order to arrange a meeting or to share information with a decision maker, it was necessary to go through several phone calls and tentative appointments that may or may not have materialized into a meeting. Twitter and other platforms have made it much easier, more accessible and less expensive to connect with decision makers directly.
Youth Engage uses these platforms in different ways – whether it be to direct messages of importance to the decision makers or to help them familiarize themselves with the work of the organization prior to an in-person meeting. Programmers and funders are also using these social media platforms to monitor work and issues, so posting their activities and concerns on Facebook and Twitter allows Youth Engage to showcase its work, and the issues that are of importance to young people.
In Zimbabwe, WhatsApp has been gaining in popularity. This platform lends itself well to communicating individually and in groups. It also allows its users to share messages and files in a way that does not require huge amounts of data or bandwidth, thus lending itself to a range of technological contexts and mobile technologies.
Youth Engage has been maintaining a very active WhatsApp group with an ever-growing membership. Young people are added to the group upon request, at trainings and events, by connecting via other social media platforms, or by receiving references from their peers.
The group offers a platform to share information, ideas and news and to ask questions on HIV, sexual and reproductive health and the many other issues that affect young people in Zimbabwe. WhatsApp creates a space for multi-directional conversations, such that users can read and respond to their peers’ interventions, while starting their own threads and discussions. As a user-driven platform, Youth Engage has limited control on what is shared via the WhatsApp group, but overall, the tone of the group has been very respectful.
Young people are hungry for information and eager to be involved in addressing the issues that are of importance to them and that affect their lives. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp offer some accessible tools to educate, mobilize and engage young people in advocacy around sexual and reproductive health.