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Why does Arise support youth advocacy?

Our Programmes Manager, Monica Moses, recently met with partners across the Philippines. Arise facilitates anti-slavery projects with frontline groups, focused on both prevention and rehabilitation. Some projects are training youth leaders, and Monica explains why below.

'Having worked with youth leaders previously, I’m well aware of their passion, energy and insight in solving the problems they face. Despite this, I am constantly surprised by quite how effective their community engagement is, and I was pleased to witness it once again during my recent visit to the Philippines, as I met the frontline organisations we work with.

Above: Young people attending an Arise anti-slavery conference in Manila last year.

Across the Philippines, incidences of OSAEC (online sexual abuse and exploitation of children) continue to rise. Recent reports have highlighted how pervasive this form of trafficking is, often initiated from within families and peer groups, who struggle with economic insecurity but have cheap access to the internet. OSAEC is a complex crime that operates behind opaque platforms on the internet, with perpetrators from across the world engaging in the production, sale and consumption of CSAEM (child sexual abuse and exploitation materials). While it’s tempting to take the moral high ground and call for better disciplining of teenagers (or worse, proclaim that these problems wouldn’t exist if they spent less time on their phones because of their ‘lack of values’), some organisations within our networks have taken a more participatory approach, which was truly inspiring for me to watch first-hand.

During my visit to Bacolod, I was able to witness a Youth Leaders training programme for young people from the region, which was organised by CAJDEN (Christian Advocates for Justice and Development in Negros). The youth assembled were learning how to identify the issues they face, who the key stakeholders in local government units (LGUs) were that they could lobby and how to develop budgets towards funding from Local Youth Councils, all towards anti-trafficking work they are engaged with in their schools and communities. I was most struck by how a group of 16-23 year olds were learning essential life skills that would support them all through their lives - imagine learning how to draft a budget for government funding at the age of 18!

In Cebu, I spent a morning with youth advocates from the Bidlisiw Foundation. These young adults are often first generation students, from working-class backgrounds, who have witnessed OSAEC develop and hurt their communities. All of them know someone who was either tricked into exploitation, or 'voluntarily' engaged out of desperation. They got involved in youth advocacy through a programme called Formation of Peer-Support Groups (PSGs), where they engage with peers in schools and colleges on the causes and consequences of OSAEC. They’re able to have honest, relatable conversations with other teenagers to explore the boundaries required while using social media, navigating romantic relationships and accepting tempting job offers that can solve their families financial woes. Their favourite mantra “Think before you click” has become a foundation of social media campaigns that they’ve managed for their local peer support Facebook pages, through which they’ve successfully fielded disclosures of OSAEC from teenagers.

Does this model of community organising actually reduce incidences of OSAEC? One cannot forget the economic root causes of the exploitation, but the youth leaders were very aware of the need to confront them too. Although they cannot promise jobs or steady income sources to their peers, they show them an alternative path - of youth free of exploitation, achieved by education and community engagement. Youth leaders prove that prevention work against modern slavery produces results, alongside other early interventions.

This model of community engagement draws strength from its hyper-local focus - and sometimes results in children advancing to become youth leaders, and then eventually being absorbed as formal staff in the frontline groups. Their pre-existing relationships within their communities enable them to build trust with other young people and community leaders quickly. They address their peers with compassion, and not the judgement they are most used to from adults who villainies them for engaging in unsafe online behaviours. Their understanding of local government operations helps them in organising events and navigating bureaucratic structures faster, which helps address hurdles in community organising that many of us in the sector are all too familiar with.

Youth advocates against OSAEC left me deeply impressed with what they have been able to achieve. Their success is not only limited to campaigns and raising awareness through memes or speaking at multiple conferences (both regionally and internationally), but in their ability to advocate for very practical changes in their local communities. While observing a training workshop for youth leaders in Bacolod, I learnt that they were being trained to advocate for systemic changes in local government youth council funding structures, which seemed to favour funding towards seemingly uncontroversial topics such as sports and culture, despite the high rates of child labour and OSAEC in the city.

I left this one-day training session amazed at what this group of teenagers had been able to achieve, and feeling grateful that Arise is able to support organisations that work with them. I can only hope that they will carry forward the skills, knowledge and confidence they have gained in whatever life throws their way.'

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