“We need to give young people a seat at the table” was a phrase I heard frequently at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban last month. It’s a frequently heard phrase at other conferences too, and in meetings or discussions which include youth participation.
The strange thing is, the more often I hear it, or read it in an article or see it in a Tweet, the less I feel sure of what the person using it is actually talking about.
What does it really mean, to give young people a seat at the table? And are we doing it well? Are increasing numbers of young people well-positioned to engage and participate in issues that affect their lives or the lives of their peers?
During #AIDS2016 I spoke with many young people – attending the conference in a whole range of capacities and from all over the world – about youth participation in the fight against HIV/AIDS. None of them mentioned seats at tables. What they talked about were concrete examples of how, when and why young people could and should contribute to the global effort to fight AIDS. What they gave were clear arguments about why young people are invaluable components to the global solution.
“I’m here to educate myself more. I now know how to talk to people about HIV” – Thabang Mosoeu, 21
“I’m going back to my community to tell young people who weren’t here about what I’ve learned to spread the information” – Thembelihle Ntombela, 19
“If you are creating any policy that affects young people, young people have to be involved in the creation of that policy” – Fale Lesa, 25
“We need to talke a less moralistic and more feministic approach in addressing issues of HIV with young women!” – Nomtika Mjwana, 25
Why are young people important in the fight to end HIV/AIDS? Margaret Bolagi from Nigeria says, "We must engage – and meaningfully engage – young people in putting an end to AIDS…starting with design, planning, implementation and evaluation of programs. Nothing for us without us!" We've been chatting to young women like Margaret @aids_conference about young people's role in tackling HIV/AIDS for women and girls. Join the conversation with #EndHIV4Her and look out for our coverage from Durban throughout the rest of the week.
One message that rang loud and clear from #AIDS2016 was that we all must work to shift perceptions of young people’s capabilities. Rather than being merely the beneficiaries of services decided upon by those with expert knowledge, young people are capable of being trustworthy partners in shaping how society thinks about and responds to HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, capability doesn’t equate to opportunity, and so it’s no use waiting around in expectation of some momentous shift.
Access to physical spaces where discussions are held and decisions are made – “a seat at the table”– is, of course, one very important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of effective youth participation. But it’s one of many. We have perhaps become so used to saying or hearing this phrase that it rolls off the tongue with a little too much ease and a little too little consideration of the other pieces.
I imagine there are few people who would enjoy sitting around a table with no idea what the others at the table are talking about. Few people would feel comfortable joining a table already filled with strangers who all seem to know one another. Few people enjoy the sense of doubt that comes with wondering if perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turning and walked in to the wrong room.
To provide young people with access and space is important and the worth of doing so shouldn’t be underestimated. But to all those who have ever pulled out a chair to a young person only to tick the box on their checklist that says ‘youth’, I’m sorry to tell you that your work is far from finished. Individuals without tools that equip them to join conversations and contribute to decisions, regardless of their age, might as well not be in that room.
Your checklist needs to look a little more like this:
- Qualify young people to contribute to conversations taking place at your table.
- Offer to share your knowledge, then bolster them with the confidence to apply it.
- Answer their questions and deepen their understanding.
Ticked all those boxes? That’s when it’s time to pull up a chair.