I don’t have the power to take away suffering. I have the power to bring joy.

Allie Olson

Youth work in Africa is challenging, and women like us who work to support young women may find themselves experiencing secondary trauma and other stresses. 

When we listen to young women or learn about the challenges they are or have faced – violence, abuse, hopelessness, care responsibilities and injustices, just to name a few – we can feel overwhelmed ourselves. It can remind us of challenges we have faced, or bring back memories of other young women we have supported.

To give our best, we need to be at our best

It’s easy to think that the needs of the young people we work with are so enormous and immediate that we cannot take a break. We feel that we have failed them if we take a break. We can feel let down by colleagues who take time off as we can feel that they are not taking this work seriously.

We must remember that central to youth work is relationships. By becoming trusted mentors, and role models, we open up young people’s horizons and encourage them to achieve the things that will make them happy and fulfilled.

When we are exhausted, we cannot give them our best. That young person who looks up to us is upset when we snap at them for being late, or struggles to pay attention as they tell us about an incident that has affected them. Losing our temper just once can break the trust built over months between a youth worker and a young woman.

Caring for Ourselves and Each Other

It is fundamental to our work to empower young women through youth work that we also ensure that we don’t disempower female youth workers through youth work. If you or one of the other women you work with feels overwhelmed by the challenges you are seeing in your work, and the stories you are hearing, you are not weak, and you have not failed. Accept that this is normal. Witnessing others’ suffering, suffering alongside them, and finding ourselves revisiting traumatic past events in our lives is exhausting. If you need to talk to someone, or take a break from your youth work, do. It is much better to take some time to reflect and recover our energies than to put ourselves into a situation where we become so exhausted and overwhelmed that we have no choice but to leave the project: we have no energy, creativity or compassion left to share.

Reflection Questions

  1.  How does your youth club or youth organisation support youth workers?
  2.  If a youth worker needs a break to recharge her batteries, would she be able to take one?
  3. If someone tells you she is exhausted from your project, what advice would she be given?

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