Voice, agency and citizenship: The everyday politics of young people’s lives in the global South

Mar 26, 2024

By Elizabeth Dessie

Young people across the global South face much economic, social, political and environmental uncertainty that impacts their daily lives as well as their futures. The challenges they face, as well as the resources they dispose of and the strategies they devise, have increasingly become the subject of research, policy initiatives, programmatic interventions and public debate.

A recently published book, Young People in the Global South: Voice, Agency and Citizenship, delves into the everyday politics of young people’s agentic assertions to citizenship and explores subjective representations through a compilation of case studies and personal testimonies.

Youth transitions in uncertain times

Edited by Kate Pincock, Nicola Jones, Lorraine van Blerk and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the first part of the book interrogates the methodological approaches and considerations attached to researching young people’s and adolescents’ lived experiences. Contributions in this section include mixed-methods readings of youth voices and decisionmaking, qualitative and quantitative explorations of key aspects of voice and agency, and an exemplary implementation of the participatory Mosaic approach applied to research conducted in Chile.

The remaining five sections explore the interconnected thematic pillars at the heart of the book. Voice, agency and citizenship are explored through perspectives from across the global South, which propose empirically grounded theorisations of youth transitions into adulthood. These acknowledge the structural obstacles and intersectional inequalities that shape youth civic engagement and political participation.

One such example is captured in a chapter written by Alam and Rashid, exploring the lived experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The authors find young people’s ability to have their voices heard and exercise agency are constrained by a social and political context that discriminates against sexual minorities. Alam and Rashid argue that this emphasises the relational nature of agency and its situatedness within specific social, political and cultural environments. This informs how navigating exclusion across social and political spaces represents part of the everyday lives of many marginalised young people.

Uplifting young people’s voices

In addition to compiling diverse insights through case studies from across the globe, this book captures young people’s lived experiences through integrated chapters narrated or written by youth themselves, with each section composed of thematically harmonised contributions. Linked to a podcast series available in English and Arabic, they include the testimonies of displaced young people exploring their activism and participation in political movements, youth partaking in community initiatives on teenage pregnancies, and young people’s role in advocating for children’s rights in post-conflict settings.

In one contribution, youth leaders from the National Alliance for Transformational Leaders (ANALIT) in Peru discuss the challenges they face in amplifying the voices of young people, their thoughts on gender equality, and their perspectives on youth claims to citizenship. The leaders highlight the need for more inclusive perceptions of citizenship to reflect the realities of marginalised groups, including youth, and their experiences of social and political engagements on the margins. They believe that definitions of what citizenship comprises and the responsibilities it entails must be revised. They argue such changes are vital for achieving a more inclusive citizenship in Peru, in order to integrate youth and adolescents into civic and political life as active citizens.

In another youth contribution, “Sara”, a young mother of two based in a Syrian refugee community in Jordan, shares her experiences as part of a participatory research group led by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence Jordan. Describing the group discussions and activities in which she engages, Sara elaborates on the gains she has made in the safe spaces the group provided. They have allowed her to question prevailing social norms, assert her voice as a young mother, build confidence through establishing friendships and community, and expand her horizons through creative engagements, including participatory photography. These contributions highlight the importance of nurturing active citizenship in and beyond the spaces young people can be confined to as a consequence of their sociopolitical circumstances, by creating opportunities for youth engagement and empowerment through learning.

Young people’s experiences of cities

With many of the contributions centred around the experiences of youth in cities, the book offers a unique insight into the constraints and contradictions that young people face across urban areas. Exploring adolescents’ mobility through participatory research conducted in 2016 and 2017 focused on access to public spaces in Gaza, Hamad, Diab and Nemer draw attention to the broader political context, insecurity, limited access to services, underdeveloped infrastructure and social hierarchies that shape adolescents’ agency and their ability to participate in civic life throughout the Gaza strip. The authors also emphasise the many disadvantages faced by adolescent girls in terms of movement and ability to utilise public spaces. This suggests that approaches to inclusive development must consider social indicators as important determinants of improved mobility and access in densely populated areas facing conditions of protracted instability.

The intersectionality of young people’s experiences is also the subject of other contributions in the book. Exploring assertions of young people’s agency in the urban peripheries of Brazil, Cuevas-Parra finds youth and adolescents’ perceptions of rights and agentic expressions are shaped by overarching power structures, while also highlighting the centrality of gender and socioeconomic status as crucial indicators that constrain their participation in civic spaces.

These themes were also captured in my contribution to the book. Drawing on data collected as part of my postdoctoral project, my research underscores the significance of acknowledging the gendered and classed nature of rural migrant youths’ livelihood strategies in Addis Ababa, the contexts under which these strategies are devised and how these processes inform a conceptualisation of citizenship as a spatial and temporal experience.

Youth mobilisation and political participation

A prevailing theme that characterises much of the empirical and youth contributions in this book relates to the resourcefulness of youth in collectively responding to the challenges they encounter in their daily lives. In their contribution, Kolkata Street Champions, a group of street-connected young people supported by the Child in Need Institute and the Consortium for Street Children, delve into their experiences as researchers and advocates in their communities. Part of a participatory Wellcome Trust-funded project focused on addressing the vulnerabilities of street-connected youth in the city, the Champions highlight the changes they marked in their roles in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming agents of change, with the “capabilities to inform, influence and bring changes in the lives” of young people and the broader community.

Also centred around the mobilisation of street-connected youth, research conducted by Corcoran et al. in Mombasa, Kenya, shows how young people’s advocacy and political participation is tied to situated, circumstantial factors which inform the scope and scale of youth activism. This, the authors argue, calls for nuanced understandings of street-level community mobilisation and a reorientation of youth-centred interventions towards participatory advocacy.

The final section of the book is dedicated to an exploration of youth-centred policies and programming. The breadth and depth of the findings presented in this publication allow us to connect the lived experiences of young people – whether as the subject of empirical investigations or through their narratives – with broader processes of change. At the same time, they draw attention to the importance of targeted interventions that place the voices, agentic capacities and citizenship of young people at the centre.

Sign up to ACRC’s e-newsletter for future updates:

Header photo credit: Rudolf Ernst / iStock. Women sorting and selling grains at Addis Mercato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

The African Cities blog is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which means you are welcome to repost this content as long as you provide full credit and a link to this original post.

Creative Commons License