By Anna-Britt Coe
“Who is going to do this work when we are no longer able? We are all getting to be old ladies, you know” stated Mercedes, a well-known feminist leader in Arequipa, Peru. The year was 2007 and I was facilitating a focus group with 12 reproductive rights advocates from the area. All participants were over forty years old and had been active since the 1980s, myself included. Mercedes’ statement implied that there were no new generations taking up the struggle for reproductive rights and gender justice. Simply put, it would be necessary to start from zero to mobilize the next generation of activists.
But this was not the case. Already in the late 1990s efforts were begun to mobilize young people on reproductive rights and gender justice in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America. These efforts included training programs for teenagers and youth developed by feminist, community development and government organizations. Among the unexpected consequences of these efforts was that youth formed their own associations and networks to work on reproductive rights and gender justice. So, the problem was not the absence of youth involved in the struggle but rather the gap between what adults expected activism to look like and how young people understood activism.
This gap sparked my interest in young people’s activism in general and their feminism in particular. I began by exploring the question: how did young people understand activism? In 2010, I studied four cases of youth activism on sexual health, two in Peru and two in Ecuador. Young women and men understood activism differently from adult reproductive rights advocates. Rather than emphasizing legal and policy change as adults did, young people saw this as just one of several strategies. Indeed, they prioritized community-oriented actions that sought to change how people thought about reproductive rights, especially other youth and closely-related adults, such as parents and teachers.
This study prompted another question: why did young people understand activism differently from adults? To answer this question, I returned to Peru and Ecuador in 2012 to interview young women and men who had been mobilized into gender justice activism by professionalized adult feminists. Professionalized adult feminists worked in formal organizations with skilled, employed staff. Their actions mainly sought to change government laws and policies. Similar to the first study, I found that young feminist activists understood their political action differently from professionalized adult feminists.
Youth activists sought to change how people thought about gender especially in terms of the family, household, and intimate partnerships. For example, they wanted women to have more freedom in the family and greater say in intimate partnerships and men to take on childcare and housework. To achieve these goals, youth activists provided cultural training, offered information and services directly to the population, and stood up to sexism in everyday life.
Youth activists developed these new ways of understanding their political action on gender justice due to three challenges. One challenge was the interaction of progressive and regressive changes to gender. For example on the one hand, women had clearly gained wider access to education, formal employment and political participation. On the other hand, the expectation of women to perform housework and childcare appeared to intensify as did the prioritization of men’s needs intimate partnerships. These changes produce new conditions, such as new forms of violence against women and new tensions between generations.
A second challenge facing youth activists was that adult generations exerted authority and control over the younger generation. Adult family and community members (including relatives and teachers) typically reinforced ideas that exempted men from housework and childcare or restricted women’s decision-making in the family. In this way, adults shaped the extent to which youth were able to build more equal gender relations.
The third and final challenge was that, even though public opinion supported gender equality, most people still opposed feminism. The common notion was that feminism simply meant the reversal of sexism; that is, women dominating men instead of men dominating women.
In recent decades, feminism in Latin America has inspired a large body of scholarship. Yet, young people’s feminisms are largely overlooked. My research turns our attention to the younger generations to learn from them about how to change gender and age inequalities.
Anna-Britt Coe is a Research Fellow at the Epidemiology and Global Health Unit, Umeå University, Sweden. Her article, “’I am not just a feminist eight hours a day but rather twenty-four hours a day’: Young Gender Justice Activism in Ecuador and Peru.” Is published in the December 2015 29(6) issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.