“In terms of leadership…I can also contribute, and not just reach out and be given things. [The training] has changed this in me.”
On the morning of January 29, 2020, a 24-year-old university student named Zeinabou Lawan Issoufou from Zinder shared her experiences with University Leadership for Change (ULC). She explained how Niger’s groundbreaking program made an impact on her life.
“Now I feel free,” said Zeinabou. “It’s like I am my own boss, and I like that.”
Zeinabou was one of 15 university students who joined our workshop to plan a new evaluation and documentation activity using a participatory action research (PAR) approach. For three full days, these dedicated young people joined me, four of my colleagues from E2A and Pathfinder International, and an international consultant with PAR experience in a large conference room at the Africa Hall Complex in Niamey. Our goal: identify questions to investigate together and make a plan for carrying out our investigation.
Before launching into the planning, however, we wanted to hear from our young partners about their experiences with the program, identified by the Ministry of Health as a best practice that should be scaled up throughout the country.
Listening to these young ULC leaders really inspired me. I was reminded why it is so important to meaningfully involve young people in programs and in research—because it makes a difference in their lives.
What is the ULC program?
Initiated in 2014 by E2A and Pathfinder, ULC aimed to improve young people’s access to and utilization of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services in Niger. The program started at Abdou Moumani University in Niamey and scaled up in 2016 to three other universities in the country, including the University of Zinder. In 2017, E2A and our partners in Niger adapted and expanded ULC to rural, community-based settings in Zinder—calling this the “Community Leadership for Change (CLC)” initiative.
Both ULC and CLC engaged youth as peer leaders to facilitate behavior-change activities in which young people identified, and then reflected and acted on, barriers and facilitators to accessing SRH information and services. The programs cultivated leadership skills among the students to become champions for SRH by involving them in both decision-making and implementation of the programs in partnership with stakeholders from relevant ministries and universities.
Who were our young research partners?
In 2020, the seven young men and eight young women seated around conference room tables represented current and former ULC peer leaders. We’d invited them specifically to collaborate on the proposed study. We wanted to assess and document the perceived impacts of the ULC and CLC interventions on young people’s lives, but because we wanted to ensure that the youth were equal partners in the process and get to the heart of the issues as seen and experienced by young people themselves, we decided to apply a PAR approach.
What is PAR and why use it?
Participatory action research is “an approach that generates knowledge from the perspective of the people that are being researched, i.e. young people, and emphasizes action on identified issues through the research” (Participatory Action Research (PAR) with Young People in Syria. UNICEF Syria Case Study #1. April 2019). Because ULC and CLC were youth-led, we intentionally chose to apply a youth-led approach for the study as well to continue modeling our values related to young people:
• Affirming the agency and power of youth to bring positive change to their own lives and communities;
• Recognizing young people as experts of their own lives and in understanding the how programs functioned, including its successes and failures;
• Listening to and acting on youth perspectives and recommendations on how programs could be improved; and
• Investing in young people’s research and leadership capacity with a view toward longer-term capacity and sustainability of community programs, as these skills are applicable across a variety of sectors that contribute to stable, equitable, healthy, and just societies.
How did it work?
We engaged the ULC students in all of the study phases: together, we generated four key questions to be investigated, selected appropriate study methods and developed the study tools, collected data through focus group discussions and in-depth interviews, analyzed and interpreted the data, and disseminated the results. As researchers using the PAR approach, the ULC peer leaders had the opportunity to see their own communities from different perspectives. Their first-hand experience encouraged reflection and a deeper understanding of local issues, and equipped them to take more informed actions.
How did we adapt to the challenges of COVID-19?
Like the rest of the world, with the onset and persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, our team had to grapple with some real challenges. To be honest, I really wasn’t sure how we would be able to implement the study. But the youth and adults on our team were committed to see this through. So we brainstormed ways to continue. We grounded all international travelers, pivoting to virtual workshops to train the youth in data collection and transcription, and jointly discussed and validated preliminary interpretations of the study findings. We wrote standard operating procedures and safety guidelines that addressed specific COVID-related issues. We ensured those in the field—data collectors and study respondents alike—were equipped with protective equipment and followed guidelines to minimize spread of COVID infections. And we created and used a WhatsApp group to stay in communication and problem-solve in real-time.
What did we learn?
We have written up the PAR findings in detail in a new study report here. However, the youth researchers also reflected on what they learned during the training and as they collected data in the field and shared with the team on WhatsApp.
What did I learn?
The PAR experience taught me some important lessons as well. I was impressed by the dedication and flexibility the students displayed as we navigated the new COVID-impacted environment where we worked. They were ready to adapt and eager to contribute and learn, both from the research content of the trainings as well as the data they would collect from other young people on their campuses and in their communities.
I also saw how they easily built and seemed to thrive on strong connections with one another, those from Zinder with those from Niamey, as they shared relatable experiences, successes and challenges of working on the ULC program.
Finally, perhaps most significantly, I witnessed a group of young people who were willing to speak up and to act, demonstrating that they truly have become champions for themselves, their communities, and their right to sexual and reproductive health. It was a privilege to learn from and work with them. And I am excited to see how they will carry forward the knowledge and skills they have gained through ULC and this PAR experience—to continue being advocates and changemakers wherever they go and whatever they do.
Learn more about E2A’s youth PAR activity and study findings in Niger, read the report and brief.