ASPBAE, in its youth work, sees Youth-led Action Research as a strategic tool serving a multi-pronged goal:
First, it empowers young people to develop a critical lens about their own lives. Through the YAR, youth are able to fulfil their role as an advocate for change and take local and immediate actions at the community level, while practitioners and advocates can create a support system for the youth.
Second, it enables practitioners and advocates to take voices of marginalised youth to mainstream policy fora. The YAR is a tool that CSOs and education coalitions can use to engage grassroots communities and constituencies in bringing out advocacy issues from the local level.
Third, it strengthens the provision of learning programmes and deepens the work of practitioners and advocates at the community and national level. This E-manual unpacks different layers of the programme and its outcomes.
In 2012, the 6th General Assembly (GA) of ASPBAE identified 'youth and life skills' as an area of priority. The GA recognised the huge gaps in public provisioning for education and learning programmes that address the needs of marginalised and vulnerable youth. In both formal and non-formal education systems, inadequate attention is given to marginalised youth in empowering them to be change agents to transforming their lives and their communities. In the Asia and the Pacific region, which is home to over 60 percent of the world's youth or more than 750 million young women and men aged 15 to 24 years, the problem is severe as national governments have largely neglected life-skills programmes for marginalised youth. The second chance learning programmes for young people provided by the NGOs are far too less to reach the growing numbers of young people.
Similarly, the voices of marginalised youth have not been heard in education planning and programme designing. While there had been varied efforts to reach out to the youth, mostly those from the universities, much remains to be done in engaging marginalised youth. In response, ASPBAE organised platforms for marginalised youth to come together and agree on their collective agenda for education and translate these into powerful messages to inform education policies, priorities, and programmes at the country and international levels. To become change agents, ASPBAE saw the utmost importance of building the capacities of marginalised youth to organise themselves, do research, solve problems, and implement actions, such as advocacy, in their communities.
ASPBAE's youth work revolves around four strategies:
ASPBAE's work in the realm of Youth-led Action Research is anchored in and strives to address three core themes: (a.) Youth, (b.) Marginalisation, (c.) and Empowerment. This E-manual draws on and informs these themes. The E-Manual will be most helpful for those who share a congruence with ASPBAE’s core beliefs and articulation of these themes as follows:
ASPBAE identifies youth as a section of people who are transitioning between childhood and adulthood. While the legal age of attaining adulthood is understood as 18 years in most countries in the world today, youthhood and adulthood are attributed with varied meanings that are context- and culture-specific. Recognising this diversity, we see youthhood as a fluid rather than age-defined category which recognises the lived experience of young people in different societies around the world.
However, for many purposes such as governance and education, a fixed-age category is needed to define youth. The United Nations defines ‘youth’ as persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years; and uses this definition for statistical consistency across the world. However, this age-range may vary in different national definitions. According to UNESCO, ‘youth’ is a person between the age where he/she may leave compulsory education, and the age at which he/she finds his/her first employment.
For this E-Manual, we use the definition of youth provided by the country/ies in which the action research will be conducted. However, we do not see this category as fixed by an age limit. Rather, we recognise that young people have the right to define themselves according to their life experiences and contexts, regardless of their age.
In ASPBAE's youth work, we do not see them only as beneficiaries or the target of our interventions. We recognise youth as persons with their autonomy, agency, and aspirations. We uphold young people's rights to voice their opinions and contribute their voices in development processes. It is important to us that youth are heard – especially in policy and decision-making spaces. Hence, we see young people as partners and leaders in action research.
This is an important framework that we reiterated in YAR - when working with marginalised youth, one has to look at their strengths amidst their challenges. These strengths may mean their resilience, street-smart, resourceful, ingenuity, and networking, etc. We need to challenge the dominant frame of government policy and programmes that mainly regard young people from marginalised communities as a burden, and hence the provisioning of programmes reflects a beneficiary-based or welfare-based approach rather than an empowering one.
In ASPBAE's youth-related work, we use the Appreciative Inquiry approach that builds on the positive aspects of young people's lives. Firstly, it regards youth as people with the potential agency to change their lives for the better. We start by asking, what are the opportunities available at the community level for youth, and how can we build on that? Further, empowering processes for youth are built on a recognition of their strengths which have been developed living on the margins – these can be resilience, survival skills and resourcefulness to name a few.
Marginalisation is defined as a systemic process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or rights. Through both direct and indirect processes, marginalised groups may be relegated to a secondary position or made to feel as if they are less important than those who hold more power or privilege in society.
The International Labour Organisation defines social exclusion or social marginalisation as being ‘in a state of poverty in which individuals or groups cannot access the living conditions which would enable them both to satisfy essential needs (food, education, health, etc.) and participate in the development of the society in which they live.’ This marginalisation happens due to the denial of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights.
Individuals and groups can be marginalised based on multiple aspects of their identity, including but not limited to: race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, sexuality, age, and/or religion. Some individuals identify with multiple marginalised groups and may experience further marginalisation as a result of their intersecting identities.
Youth are further marginalised due to their age. Young people have been excluded from development programmes and activities in numerous ways. As an age cohort, youth are less likely to be involved in governance and decision-making processes, as a result of economic, political, and procedural barriers that prevent their participation. However, youth is not a homogenous category, and young people located in intersecting marginalised identities may face further marginalisation due to their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, and so on. For example, girls and women are often excluded from the few youth groups permitted to participate in decision-making, and young men often disproportionately benefit from resources designated for youth.
In response to this, ASPBAE puts a special focus on advancing the learning needs and interests of marginalised youth, to safeguard equity, inclusion, and non-discrimination in education systems in all contexts and settings. These are considered integral to ASPBAE’s commitment to advancing the right to education. Hence, the contents of this E-Manual are meant to facilitate transformative processes specifically for marginalised youth.
The concept of empowerment first emerged during grassroots movements which began taking shape in the decades following 1970. ‘Empowerment’ was understood as a process of change by which a historically disenfranchised group could overcome the causes of its oppression. Empowerment was conceptually distinct from being ‘in power’, and relied upon a constructive rather than oppressive understanding of power, i.e. not as ‘power over’ someone or something, but rather as ‘power within’, as well as the ‘power to’ bring about change. Empowerment thus was the ability to "empower and transform oneself, others, and the world".
In the 1990s, empowerment became increasingly popular within the gender and development policy space, particularly as a strategy to integrate women into processes of development. This understanding of empowerment limited the more transformative goals of earlier thinking on empowerment, such as challenging and changing existing power relations. Rather, empowerment in development policy became another word for equipping women and girls, particularly from 'underdeveloped' or 'developing' countries, with skills and resources to increase their productivity, which in turn could drive economic growth in these countries. Empowerment hence came to be understood only in the context of girls' education or micro-credit programmes for women.
This conceptualisation of empowerment in development policy has been heavily critiqued by feminist thinkers, as it only sees women and girls in an instrumental sense – that they should be empowered so that they can contribute towards larger goals such as community development and economic growth. This instrumental aim of empowerment is captured perfectly in the Girl Effect campaign's slogan – "Invest in a girl, and she will do the rest." Such instrumentalisation fails to see that women and girls – or anyone belonging to a marginalised group – have an intrinsic right to be empowered and free themselves from the yoke of oppression and discrimination they have suffered due to unequal relations of power.
Secondly, feminists argue that such an instrumental understanding of empowerment does not do justice to the full potential of empowerment which was understood when the term first came to be used. As Cecilia Sardenberg points out, while ‘liberal’ empowerment is geared towards benefiting individual women rather than transforming the shared situation of women; ‘liberating’ empowerment calls for forms of collective analysis and action that are missing from the ‘invest in girls and women’ approach. This potential of empowerment, to fundamentally alter power relations, has been reworked into newer definitions of empowerment that feminist scholars are putting forward.
Naila Kabeer defines empowerment as a process of change that "expands people’s abilities to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them". Hence, it matters whether a choice is made in a context where that choice was earlier denied or constrained, or when making that choice enables a challenging or expanding of systemic boundaries. Sarah Mosedale defines women’s empowerment as "the process by which women redefine and extend what is possible for them to be and do in situations where they have been restricted, compared to men, from being and doing". Nelly Stromquist has defined empowerment as a multi-dimensional process and socio-political concept that includes cognitive, psychological, political, and economic components. The interweaving of each component is necessary to not only enhance women’s ability to comprehend their subordination but also to develop psychological capacities such as self-esteem to "organize and mobilize for social change".
These articulations of empowerment in feminist scholarship differ in two significant ways from how empowerment is understood by development policy: one, they see empowerment as a process rather than an end-goal. Or as Mosedale points out: "One does not arrive at a stage of being empowered in some absolute sense. People are empowered, or disempowered, relative to others or, importantly, relative to themselves at a previous time.". Secondly, feminist scholars recognise that the process of empowerment does not and cannot occur outside of pre-existing structures of power; rather, it is mediated through them in interesting and complex ways. Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas point out that empowerment "is not something that can be rolled out like a motorway over any terrain with predictable outcomes. Its very nature is something more contingent and contextual, and ultimately far less predictable than allowed for by development agencies’ quick-fix solutions.