When I first started working with young women at the youth club, I really wanted to make a difference. I saw so much need, and I felt I had so much to give. I saw the gaps in support at home, and tried to fill that space. I tried to be mother, sister, friend… But most of these girls had mothers – or at least guardians. They had siblings and friends. They needed me to be a youth worker, and to empower them in their roles. It took me a long time to realise this. I couldn’t meet every need. I wasn’t there to rescue people. If I couldn’t solve every problem, I wasn’t failing. I just had to do my best, and encourage everyone else to do their best too.

Kenyan youth worker

Caring for the young women and girls we work with often makes us better youth workers, but as we know, burning out doesn’t. One of the great ways to prevent burnout is to be clear about our role. We are youth workers. We cannot solve every girl’s problems. We are here to empower.

We are not parents or guardians

We take something away from women and girls when we overreach. Will we truly be around in two years time? Five years? Babysitting these girls’ children and helping them to pay school fees? Probably not. Most girls have families. Their families may look dysfunctional in our eyes. Fathers may be absent, and mothers and aunties may be overwhelmed. Finances may be tight. They may have unrealistic or old-fashioned views of their daughters’ roles and ambitions. They may have been torn apart through war. They may be middle-class parents with a nice house and good jobs who often leave their daughters with nannies. But they are still family. 

If we think that a girl doesn’t have the family support she needs to thrive, the best thing we can do is see how we can work with her family to help her. Most families are keen on their daughters succeeding, even if their idea of what that looks like isn’t the same as ours. That won’t change by distancing a girl from her family, but by helping her family to unite behind her. Our role as youth workers can never substitute for her family; we support and complement what the guardians/family does.

Family is the greatest support system

Here are some ideas for engaging parents and guardians:

  • Always see family as allies, not adversaries 
  • Consult activities with parents and guardians. Engage them as volunteers, leaders and project champions wherever possible – when they see the project as their own, you will achieve so much more. 
  • Ownership is also financial – whilst not all parents can contribute, and it may be a barrier to the engagement of young women in some places, if parents can finance activities, they should be encouraged to. This gives them a voice and the chance to lead for their communities. 
  • The development and growth of a young woman is a common objective for both youth workers and families to achieve together. Greater success will be achieved if you work as a team.
  • Make sure they clearly understand what your youth club or programme is trying to achieve, and how it will benefit their daughter.
  • Keep family updated – invite them regularly (e.g. each term) to join you and see what you are achieving. Seeing that other families value the activities will give a different perspective on why your work is important and valuable. 
  • Encourage parents and guardians to give girls the opportunity to continue what they have learnt in the youth club at home. 
  • Run events for mums, parents or other family members in parallel – if girls’ greatest problem is their home economic situation, can your youth club also offer livelihood training for their mums, for example?
  • Make sure you have a system in place to receive feedback from guardians and parents.

Engaging families where they are:

We recognise the value of family stability. When parents are present, loving, and engaged in nurturing their daughters, we see this impact. Girls feel confident and safe. However, many girls do not have this support system. They may have lost their parents or be living apart from them for other reasons. Effective engagement of girls and their families means:

  • Don’t judge people for their families – whatever their family have or haven’t done, it is not the children’s fault.
  • Don’t use language about their families that could offend. Avoid words like ‘broken’ or ‘dysfunctional’. We want to encourage girls to love their families and own their stories, not to be ashamed of their backgrounds. 
  • Focus on the good in a family situation, not the deficits. The girl is unlikely to be able to change her circumstances, and if you only focus on what she doesn’t have, it won’t help her to build on the foundation that she does have. 
  • Don’t encourage behaviours or actions that contradict a girl’s parents, especially if she is a minor – this creates a lot of stress for the child and is fruitless. It will make you very stressed as a youth worker because you are unlikely to succeed. 
  • If you are working with a young woman who is no longer at home, think about helping her to negotiate with her parents rather than antagonise them. How can she talk constructively about her plans, when they differ from her parent’s plans for her?

Reflection Questions

  1.  How do you currently engage a girl’s family? Is it effective?
  2.  Do you empower parents through your activities?
  3. Have you ever excluded a girl or young woman from your activities because of her family background? Why? On reflection, was this the right decision?
  4. What language do you use to discuss girls’ family backgrounds or other circumstances? Does this shame the girls? Would you be happy if someone said that about you?

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