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20 Years of Mobilization: The Role of Young Feminists

16 Mar 2015

20 Years of Mobilization: The Role of Young Feminists
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Young women and girls continue to experience rights violations in their daily lives such as sexual- and gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, discrimination and limited access to their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Approaching Beijing+20, we arrive at an important juncture, a moment to reflect on achievements to date and challenges ahead. Operating in volatile and resource-constrained environments, young feminists are organizing collectively, facing backlash and barriers within their communities, societies and their own movements. The mobilization, the courage and the experience of this generation have an important role to play in redefining a just development and human rights agenda ahead. Coming from diverse movements and contexts, and using art, technology and sport as key tactics in their work, their contributions can make development more responsive, grounded and sustainable. Let us collectively re-imagine how we work together across generations and movements, and leverage both our critical mass and the technology available to hold all actors accountable.

Ruby Johnson is the Co-Director of FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund, the only fund dedicated exclusively to resourcing young feminist organizations worldwide.

20 Years of Mobilization: the Role of Young Feminists

If you had been born in the year of the Beijing Platform for Action, 2015 would mark your 20th birthday. While some have spent an entire lifetime mobilizing for women’s rights from the local to the global level, for younger generations, this may be their first tangible opportunity to influence global policy that can affect the rest of their lives.

The Beijing Platform for Action set a strong foundation to hold governments accountable for the rights of women and girls. 20 years on, the declaration has had wide reaching impact, however, impunity and violations of women’s rights and gender inequality persist. It is the implementation and follow through that we must now demand action on.

Young women and girls have key contributions to make in defining this next stage. This think piece will explore the harsh realities and challenges that they face and their courageous responses at the community level. It will look at how collective organizing by, and progressive leadership of, young feminist groups is so crucial to reframing the development agenda and sustaining our movements.

A look at how young feminists are organizing globally

The issues young women face

While we have many achievements to celebrate since 1995, the challenges that remain are many, including women in prison on abortion charges in El Salvador, deadly conditions for garment factory workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia, the 276 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram and still missing in Nigeria and the horrific murder of two teenage girls in India and so many other cases that shocked the world. Such cases are matched with on-going and systematic violence and rights violations such as daily discrimination, street harassment, limited access to healthcare and education.

As we increasingly realize that the current development paradigm is not necessarily getting us closer to equality and that the architecture of the global economic system by design equates to unequal power relations, it is clear that we need to be bold and shake things up. With the growing power of corporations and transnational actors, we can see numerous efforts to regulate and govern these in the last 5-10 years, such as the Global Compact, The Global Accountability Project (GAP) and more. Simultaneously, civil society is tasked with finding new ways to hold all actors accountable, to regain the power of citizens and leverage our diversity and the motivation born of frustration to build bridges between us. This is a question of resources and where power comes from.

In my role with FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund, I am fortunate enough to work alongside young feminists across the world, and see how their leadership and participation has the ability to catalyse change from the local to the global level. Working on issues such as sexual- and gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, LGBTQI rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, young women are bravely organizing around the world’s most pressing challenges. Commonly, groups are led by young women who have directly experienced rights violations themselves, whether survivors of violence, child brides, or living multiple forms of discrimination. It is their lived experience that gives them a unique perspective on how to positively affect their situation and to devise strategies appropriate to their local context.

Strategies young feminists use

The array of tactics used demonstrate their creativity and courage, whether it be art—theatre, poetry, dance, graffiti, creative writing—or physical activities such as sport, self-defence, or leveraging communications and technology such as social media, radio, TV or printed visuals. Using these tactics, young women-led groups’ primary focus is on engaging communities and direct confrontation with decision makers. The conscious choice to use direct action, and focus on changing cultural and social attitudes and practices, has in many ways sprouted from a frustration with political promises and policies that are not implemented.

One such example is the Red Brigade Lucknow, India, shown in the photograph.1 This group, led by young women, fights against sexual violence and harassment in public and in the home, responding to their own experiences and high rates of assault and violence in their communities. As Usha, their leader explains in an interview conducted by the author for this piece,

“I concluded that we were neither safe inside our house nor outside. So, I decided to fight back and formed a group of 15 girls in 2010. Ours is a group of survivors. We started an awareness campaign regarding women issues through street plays and workshops under the name Red Brigade; dressed in red and black, red denoting struggle and black denoting protest. We also learnt self-defence and started training/equipping other girls with self-defence, or techniques.”

The members also patrol the streets to end public eve teasing, and rape culture. The challenge of impunity for perpetrators in the community and in the legal system makes their work even more challenging, as does the dangerous backlash against their activism.

Challenges young women face

Volatile environments

Whether in India, Nigeria, Ukraine, Mexico, Afghanistan, Egypt or any other corner of the world, young feminist groups experience a range of challenges that affect their daily lives and threaten their organizing. They commonly operate in volatile contexts with limited resources and concerns of security and safety. According to recent data analysis of FRIDA applications from the last three years, over 75% of the 1308 young feminist led groups in 128 countries and across 5 regions who applied for membership of the organization were unregistered. Many explained that the main challenges they faced were finding safe space, securing funds for their work, and backlash against their work in their communities.

Backlash and security issues are of key concern, as by their very nature, the issues that young women are working on are often highly controversial (Johnson 2014). A representative of the group Chouf from Tunisia explained to the author: “Our main challenges concern the security of our members. We are trying to cope with these difficulties by organizing physical and online security training and by protecting the anonymity of our members.” Opposition can take on many different forms including violence and intimidation. Religious fundamentalism pushes back their work, with access to criminalization of abortion, sexuality education and SOGI being particularly controversial.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights continues to be one of the most pressing issues for young women across the globe: limited access to sexuality education and contraception, high rates of teen pregnancy, and abortion being outlawed or frowned upon, resulting in unsafe abortions and increased maternal mortality, are all key issues. Sarah, an activist from Sri Lanka, said to the author:
    “It is challenging for young feminists in Sri Lanka to advocate for policy changes or even talk about these issues openly due to religious and cultural barriers but a lot of brave young feminists have been passionately working on these issues both at grassroots and decision-making levels. There are several youth-led organizations working on hotlines providing safe medical abortion information, conducting research on controversial topics such as abortion and SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression), conducting creative online social media campaigns to advocate for women’s rights and also using theatre to address women’s rights violations in depth.”

Lack of resources

With the increased commitment to ‘investing in women and girls’ from diverse funders and policy makers, in particular on the part of new actors (Miller et al. 2012), and the strong push from the UN and other actors toward increased participation of young people in the Post 2015 process and the new development agenda, great strides have been made. However the voices of young women, in particular more radical ones, often go unheard. Young women sometimes choose to be outside the mainstream, as they reject current structures of governance and push for alternatives. However, in many other cases a lack of access and resources is a major problem limiting their participation. Of the 1308 groups who applied for FRIDA membership in the last 3 years, more than one third suggested that their biggest challenge was limited access to resources for their work. As pointed out by Arutyunova et al. (2013) in their AWID research Watering the leaves, Starving the Roots,women’s organizations have extremely small budgets: “In 2010, the median annual income of over 740 women’s organizations around the world was USD 20,000.” It seems that for groups led by young women are equally or more scarce. There is a strong need to work toward more and better resources to fund the work of young feminists.

Lack of inter-generational organizing

One of the challenges many young feminist groups talk of is a lack of appreciation for their organizing and that they feel silenced within the larger feminist and/or other movements. Many young women we work with express frustration at not being taken seriously or being dismissed as inexperienced. Where we can, we need to ensure young people can contribute their perspectives and knowledge to key conversations. However, let us also recognize that this is not simply about young people not being taken seriously, but that ageism exists across generations and works both ways. The contributions of older activists in youth movements and in supporting the work of young women and girls can also be invisible or undervalued.

Beijing+20 gives us an opportunity to reflect on our movements, the intersections between them and to work towards overcoming the fractures that disconnect us. Part of this is recognizing how our frustrations and past experience guide our perceptions, to reflect on them and listen to others to understand where people are coming from. For young people committed to youth leadership, they will also arrive at the moment to make space for new generations, thus new and older generations can find affinity in the shared reality of impermanence and transitions on our movements. Meaningful inter-generational dialogue and collaboration is essential to transformative change.

Lack of meaningful inclusion and intersectional approaches

While there is a strong rationale for recognizing young people as a key group when it comes to influencing policy and decisions, with it comes a certain danger that it may become tokenized participation, and one that does not take into account their intersecting identities, such as belonging to a indigenous or religious group. As expressed by Arinii Judhistari et al. (2012:4) “There is also risk of narrowly focusing on youth issues solely, and neglecting building alliances with other movements. This is partly because of the stereotypical definitions of young people set by the international policy, which defines them only based on their age, and not their multiple identities or other vulnerability factors.” There can be a tendency for young people to be excluded from or not meaningfully engaged in advocacy processes.

Last year when attending the 58th Session on Commission on the Status of Women, it was evident that despite the success in building space for young women, more progressive voices from young women from the global South were not well represented. Young feminists have a unique role to play, on the one hand radicalizing the youth movement and ensuring the diverse voices of young women from the global South working at the grassroots level are present, and on the other hand they aim to forming a bridge between the youth movement and the women’s movement and broader social movements.

Where to from here?

Organizing in volatile contexts and facing strong opposition to their work, many young feminists are finding that incremental change will not cut it. Responding to these realities requires us to transform our approach. Feminist movements and young women should continue to be at the heart of this change. This means building community with technology that does not leave others behind, exploring how social media and mobile technology can be more accessible and better leveraged to communicate, and increasing internet access. This also means challenging ourselves to connect across borders, languages and movements, and working in ways that 20 years ago were perhaps not possible (Goetz and Sandler 2015). Together we can explore alternative global governance structures that create avenues for wider participation and leverage technology to democratize accountability beyond state borders.

Let us work toward making our movements increasingly resilient and inclusive, and “broaden participation by young women, to ensure that there is always a critical mass that will remain committed to the cause and take leadership forward” (Nnini 2012). As pointed out by Goetz and Sandler (2015), 20 years after Beijing we now have the opportunity to reassess and contemplate how to make space for young women, “younger feminists would have the opportunity to organize locally and connect globally and contribute to reviving women’s movements in many countries and regions” (ibid). This requires providing resources to allow young women to participate meaningfully and ensuring that their work and leadership is supported and their voices are heard. It is also about young feminists recognizing where they need help and where they can learn from what has been done before them.


Arini Judhistari, Rachel, Shubha Kayastha and Suloshini Jahanath. 2012. Young People and the Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Critical Look at Youth SRHR Movement Building and Agenda Setting. Arrow for Change 18(2):2-4.

Arutyunova, Angelika and Cindy Clark. 2013. Watering the leaves, starving the roots. Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

Goetz, Anne Marie and Joanne Sandler. 2015. Women's rights have no country. Open Democracy, 15 January.

Johnson, Ruby. 2014. Claiming Rights, Facing Fire: Young Feminist Activists. Open Democracy, 20 October.

Miller, Julia, Angelika Arutyunova, and Cindy Clark. 2014. New Actors, New Money, New Conversations, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

Nnini, Thatayaone. 2012. Young women participation: The theory and the practice. In BUWA! A Journal on African Women's Experiences 1(2):74-77.

The analysis of application data from 2012, 2013 and 2014 mentioned in the think piece forms part of research being undertaken by FRIDA & AWID consisting of a fieldscan of young feminist organizing around the world. The interviews mentioned are with FRIDA Grantee groups and Advisors: Red Brigade, Lucknow, Chouf, Tunisia and Sarah Soya, Sri Lanka.

1 Red Brigade, Lucknow, FRIDA Grantee Partner. Photo taken by Gethin Chamberlen.

    Ruby Johnson is the Co-Director of FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund, the only fund dedicated exclusively to resourcing young feminist organizations worldwide. Prior to joining FRIDA, Ruby worked with UN Women Cambodia in the area of governance and women’s human rights, supporting young Cambodian women’s leadership and advocacy. Ruby has also worked with the Fred Hollows Foundation, and Amnesty International and in indigenous communities in Australia and Mexico. She has a B.A. in International Studies from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and a M.A. in Participatory Development and Applied Anthropology in Gender from Australian National University. She is from Sydney, Australia, but is currently based in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.