The sounds of laughter, singing and clapping emanate from a small event space deep in Mamelodi township on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa. Inside, a group of girls are excitedly preparing to begin a group dialogue session. The participants, whose ages range from 15 to 25, have been brought together by their desire for change—and their belief that they can drive it themselves by speaking directly to powerful groups and decision-makers. This is the Young Women for Life (YWfL) movement.
The movement, convened by the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission and supported by UN Women South Africa Multi-Country office, was founded in 2019 to help empower South African women and girls in the face of discrimination and hardship. Together, members confront the challenges and threats they encounter in their day-to-day lives—including unemployment, HIV infection and gender-based violence.
Youth in South Africa continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market, with an unemployment rate higher than the national average. In the first quarter of 2022, Statistics South Africa reported respective unemployment rates of 63.9 percent and 42.1 per cent for those aged 15-24 and 25-34 years, while the current official national rate stands at 34.5 percent. A World Bank report showed that job losses in COVID-19 times are disproportionally concentrated among low-income earners, worsening already severe inequalities.
Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to socio-economic challenges in South Africa’s patriarchal society, and they often find themselves compromising their sexual and reproductive health to survive from day to day. All the sites where the YWfL movement is present are high-burden areas for HIV prevalence and treatment defaulting, where girls and young women face similar socio-economic vulnerabilities to HIV. Across South Africa, adolescent girls and young women account for 35 percent of all new HIV infections. Gender-based violence, too, remains a pervasive issue: In 2021, Statistics South Africa released a report indicating that one in five women (21 percent) had experienced physical violence by a partner.
Enter the Young Women for Life movement. Structured through local “ward cell” groups that meet, share and strategize, the movement uses group dialogues to raise awareness around HIV and to discuss issues relating to gender dynamics and the pressures that lead to transactional sexual relationships. These dialogues have formed the foundation from which young women across South Africa have been able to support and encourage each other over the past two years, as well as to strategise about social change, advocacy and financial improvement initiatives.
During the group dialogue sessions, the girls are led by trainers, Volunteers from the community who work with SACBC in driving activities on the ground.. The girls break into smaller groups to debate questions posed by the trainers around key issues like HIV prevalence, gender-based violence and transactional sexual relationships. “The dialogues are informed by the context and what the young women are living on a day-to-day basis”, explains Jacqueline Nzisabira, the UN Women Regional HIV/AIDS Policy Specialist. Afterwards, the smaller groups reconvene and report back on their discussions. Often touching on members’ personal experiences, these reporting sessions become a moment of shared catharsis.
Beyond offering emotional support, the Young Women for Life movement is fighting to improve women and girls’ access to justice. This includes monitoring court cases surrounding gender-based violence and advocating for improved services for the survivors involved in these cases. In 2021, members were involved in the resolution of 135 cases of rape and femicide—from the time they were reported to the police through to their conclusion in court. The movement supported young women and their families in navigating the criminal justice system and accessing counselling and pyscho-social support services.
Members also picket outside courts as a way of making their presence known to the magistrates and of drawing public attention to cases of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. During sentencing, they make legal submissions to magistrates to ensure no leniency is given in rape and femicide cases. In the past, members have reported magistrates to the South African Department of Justice when they have given lenient sentences that do not comply with sentencing guidelines.
The YWfL movement also works to build the resourcefulness and resilience of girls and young women in the face of financial strain and limited economic opportunities, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. UN Women and SACBC recently conducted economic empowerment and life skills trainings with 600 young women from across South Africa in partnership with Nokia’s incubation programme, which offers training opportunities that can lead to employment and further skills development.
On the benefits she has seen as the programme implementation continues, Jacqueline says, “This programme has shown results beyond what we expected. It is exposing the issues that are driving prevalence of HIV and Gender-based violence. It’s helping us and the Government to address the right issues. The young women have become more resilient and they’re taking their destinies into their own hands through reinforcing their voice and their agency”. Father Stan Muyebe, director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, adds: “Our vision for the movement in the next few years is for the girls to own the whole process by themselves, with our support. We want them to have the ownership, direction, and vision on the empowerment that they want”.