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Real Choices, Real Lives: Research with young people in Brazil, Uganda and Vietnam

20 Apr 2015
Jean Casey, Feyi Rodway & Kanwal Ahluwalia , Research Specialists from Plan UK
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The research project is a qualitative study of 40 adolescents (aged 12-17) and 69 young women and men (aged 18 to 20) in Brazil, Uganda and Vietnam. The research was conducted in a small number of communities taking part in Plan International’s[2] cohort study – “Real Choices, Real Lives”[3]. Real Choices, Real Lives has been following 142 girls from 9 countries around the world since 2007, examining gender discrimination in girls’ lives.

This research study explored adolescents and young people’s ideas and beliefs about gender equality. It reflected on the ways in which individuals’ lives are shaped not only by individuals themselves, but also by the people they talk to, the groups to which they belong, the spaces (e.g. home, school, work, community) they move through and the social structures and institutions (such as the law) which they encounter.

The adolescents and young women and men in the three countries talked about changes that have occurred in their own lifetimes, for example, the recognition of equal rights to education. However, their lived realities of poverty and gender in relation to the realisation of these rights produced a different picture – one that is deeply embedded in inequalities of power and social status. For them, being able to use the language of equality and having an understanding of their rights is clearly not enough to make gender equality a reality.

Urban Brazilian boys said “everyone is equal”, “you just have to work hard” and “the opportunities are the same”.  But within the same conversation, they said, “girls have a lot of domestic chores to do” and “boys want to have a lot of fun”.  Girls in Brazil also picked out “prejudice” as one of their main concerns; prejudice also means that girls are not able to have their voices heard in public, as this boy explained: “Some girls are restricted from attending community meetings like this one, yet they have good ideas – better than ours – and in the end we lose because they are not allowed to move. A girl can come and give advice on how to start a business and development things but because she is not allowed we lose these ideas and follow old-fashioned ideas that we think are the best as boys.” (Paul, rural Ugandan boy)

While laws were valued amongst respondents in all countries, it was clear from the way that they discussed them that laws were not enough. Predominant social norms combined with the reality of poverty meant that legislation is ineffective, particularly with regard to gender-based violence.

One of the most visible forms of inequality of power and status came through in ways in which young men and women talked about differences in investment in their futures. Their use of language highlighted the fact that while education is regularly described in one particular way in public – as a right – it may be described within private family negotiations in quite another, with language based on affordability and return on investment related to the complex financial decisions they have to take. So while young men and women felt that there were opportunities, they also felt that they were not always able to take advantage of these, and that the needs of sons were often prioritised over the needs of daughters.

One of the most worrying ways in which the girls and young women discussed how they absorb discrimination and inequalities was through an acceptance of the violence they experience and see around them.

Phoebe: “If a man warns you various times and you continue, he can beat you and you can’t report to anyone because you the wife will be in the wrong.”

Other girls in unison: “Even though they beat you severely?”

Phoebe: “No, if they are simple injuries."

Conversation between urban Ugandan girls

These kinds of views, where “simple injuries” are nothing to complain about, are expressed despite apparently robust legislative frameworks, such as the Domestic Violence Act of 2010 in Uganda, which makes a wide range of abuses illegal and can be applied to ex-partners, married or unmarried cohabiters, and domestic employees.[4]  The acceptance of violence is made worse when girls, because of both their age and sex, are rarely part of any participatory decision-making processes, and are not encouraged to speak out. Although young people use the language of gender equality and laws are in place to punish gender-based violence, ingrained discriminatory social norms leave them with the understanding that at some level gender-based violence is acceptable.

An important aspect of this research is the specific focus on uncovering how young people understand and discuss their own lived realities. Through analysing their conversations, researchers have been able to explore the tensions underlying efforts towards advancing gender equality. Young men’s and women’s suggestions for how inequitable attitudes and structures might be challenged are presented below.

One of the central emphases highlighted by the young respondents for challenging discriminatory norms was giving increased prominence to their voices and collective action.

Hue: “We need organisations’ intervention and consultation to raise awareness of adults and parents. Frequently talk to parents, express our opinions to make parents understand us better.”
Nguyet: “I think women’s participation in the community should be promoted.”

Hue: “I think that the leaders who have access to more information can share knowledge with local people. For example, a village leader can share with others about his/her meetings at the commune.”

Young men and women also discuss the importance of their own roles in challenging norms and attitudes and of being empowered to speak out.

Hue: “I think there is a perception in society that women and girls are not thoughtful and have no critical thinking. Therefore, they believe that we cannot contribute much and there is no need to refer to our viewpoints and ideas.”

Nguyet: “I just over hear from my parents sometimes but I do not have the right to take part in or make any decisions.”

Hue: “Firstly, we should raise our voices, speak up and confirm that our voices and participation need to be considered; they are not for nothing. Secondly, other people around need to listen and appreciate our ideas. They only can judge whether our ideas our good or not after they listen.”

Conversations among rural Vietnamese girls illustrated solutions posed by girls about improved flows in information but also about shifting beliefs about girls and young women speaking out and making their voices heard.

When asked about community responses to gender-based violence, for example, they responded in unison that they had never been asked for their own views.

Within the context of being heard, therefore, girls recognised that taking space was as important as being given it. This was not just a question of individual girls’ agency, but one of solidarity among groups of girls. Girls saw themselves, not only as potential agents of social transformation, but recognised that creating change takes time and is challenging.

Quy: “I participate in Women Union, but sometimes I am too busy to attend the meeting…moreover, those perceptions are deeply rooted in our minds so we can’t change everything overnight.”

Hue: “We may lobby to change policy, mobilise the people, but it can’t be changed overnight.”

Goretti, one of the girls from Uganda added, “I think that some women don’t know how to express themselves in public, and if you can’t express yourself, who will express things for you?”

Coming through all of the discussions with young women and men was the recognition that change requires a range of participants; not just legislation, not just market opportunities, not just parental support and not just a language of equality. It is a combination of changes in these different spaces that can create virtuous circles, multiply opportunities and embed sustained gender equality.

“Parents and families, children, communities, the associated president, the Mayor, teachers and guards: everyone can do something to change this reality.” (Mayara, rural Brazilian girl).

This approach presenting data as conversations between young people, offers practitioners and researchers a more holistic way of understanding the complexities within which they live. The young women interviewed expressed how change takes time, that by investing in approaches that offer a deeper, more holistic analysis, practitioners and researchers gain a clearer picture of the interventions needed for sustainable change in communities, as articulated by young women themselves. This more nuanced in-depth dialectic approach to development inquiry, for programme intervention or learning, monitoring and evaluation, could provide more accurate and richer insights into longer term development interventions.

In this research, we presented some of the data in discussion form, to show not only what and how young people think, but also how they react to each other. We set out to highlight that examining the richness of these discussions illustrates the tensions that exist in trying to break away from some of the discriminatory norms which shape the spaces young people transverse through life.

It is clear from our research that while gender equality might in principle be championed by young women and men there is an underlying tow in the shape of discriminatory norms and societal institutions that obstructs the realisation of rights and particularly the advancement of gender equality. Analysing discussions of how young people interact and react to each other will provide valuable insight into the more complex tensions that exist when trying to tackle discriminatory norms, but also valuable insights from young people’s perspective about where opportunities for change exist, situated in their lived realities of poverty and gender discrimination.

[1] Excerpts from Casey, Jean, Charlotte Nussey and Feyi Rodway (2014). ‘Exploring the Gap: New Ideas and Old Realities: Real Choices, Real Lives: Research with young people in Brazil, Uganda and Vietnam. ’Plan International, in “Because I am a Girl, The State of the World’s Girls 2014 Report: “Pathways to Power: Creating sustainable change for adolescent girls”, p.82 – 87.
[2] Plan International is an international development organization working with children, their families and communities in over 50 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to overcome poverty and injustice by supporting girls and boys to realise their rights.
[3] Plan (2014). ‘Pathways to Power - The Significance of Middle Childhood. Cohort Study Update’. Plan International Headquarters.
[4] Domestic Violence Act of 2010 in Uganda: