Opening Doors: Mentoring for Effective Advocacy
By Laura Brazee, Health Policy Plus, Plan International USA
Deborah was determined to reduce early marriage in her village in central Malawi. She wanted to discuss ways of doing so with the village’s traditional leaders, but getting time on their busy schedules wasn’t working. With the help of her mentor Velia, who works within Malawi’s Parliament, she built connections with her district’s Child Protection Officer who had direct access to the leaders. The officer helped her gather the data she needed to make her case and introduced her to other stakeholders in the village. Through these networks, and her persistent advocacy, she has cultivated a set of trusted allies to help in her pursuit to reduce the number of children and adolescents getting married.
Young leaders can be a powerful force for change, and they can be even more effective when they have access to seasoned allies that can help open doors for them. It’s for this reason that Health Policy Plus (HP+)—a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development—launched an intergenerational mentoring program in Malawi in October 2019. The program aims to support emerging young leaders engage village, district, and national stakeholders to deliver on the promises surrounding youth-friendly health services (YFHS) and ending early marriage laid out in the country's national policies.
The program selected eight highly experienced female professionals to mentor young people to advocate for YFHS issues. The mentors bring deep experience and their networks. They are employed by universities, faith-based organizations, Parliament, government ministries, or lead their own nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Many of the selected mentors were actively involved in advocating to change the age of marriage in Malawi from 15 to 18, and others have been part of groups that work with the Malawian Government to meet Malawi’s FP2020 commitments. These mentors were then matched with twenty-four female and male emerging young leaders from all over Malawi.
Lessons from an Intergenerational Mentoring Program
In their collaboration to advocate for improved implementation of policies related to YFHS and ending early marriage, five key lessons have emerged for what can make or break mentoring programs.
Anticipate and plan for young peoples’ mobility during this stage in life
A key factor in matching mentors with mentees is geography. Young people often migrate as they seek out employment and educational opportunities and care for family members. Between November 2019 and March 2020 many of the mentees moved to different parts of the country, and in a few cases away from urban centers. This meant they were no longer able to meet in-person with their mentor, or leverage pre-established networks and resources in the areas they originated. Anticipating migration, building in the flexibility to switch mentor/mentee pairs, and ensuring young people have the resources to connect remotely will ultimately garner better results.
Mentors’ expertise is a major value-add to mentees’ learning
Mentors’ experience and knowledge can help direct and refine the approach of new generations of advocates. Youth activists are often drawn to advocacy around youth-friendly health services because it’s personal: they see their own lives or their peers’ being harmed by unplanned pregnancies, early marriages, or HIV. Their voices and efforts are informed and driven by the realities they experience in their communities and, while they might be acutely aware of the needs at the local level, they are often not as aware of existing health and youth policies set at the national level. Two mentees working to expand YFHS at a Christian university turned to their mentors for help in analyzing the university’s policies and entry points for advocating to the Dean of Students. With their mentors’ help, they were able to successfully advocate for a youth network to be established at the university which is now providing students with reliable information on where and how to access youth-friendly health services locally. Mentors can offer critical support to mentees in better understanding national policies and how they are implemented.
Mentors play a key role in helping mentees build their networks
Supporting mentees to build partnerships with like-minded youth networks and organizations can help them advance their advocacy work and connect to new stakeholders. In the Malawi program, one mentor supported her mentee’s efforts to connect with Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO)—a local NGO committed to empowering children, youth, and women—to obtain a sample of village-level child marriage bylaws, a document she felt could support her own advocacy. YONECO not only supplied examples of existing bylaws, but worked with the mentee to propose revisions to the bylaws for her village.
Meeting with decisionmakers sometimes requires innovative solutions
Approaching decisionmakers can sometimes prove challenging when the formalities expected by decisionmakers don’t align with advocates’ limited resources. In Malawi, some mentees have been asked to organize formal meetings that include expenses for lunch, per diem, and transport—a request they are unable to fulfill. To get around this challenge, and help mentees make inroads, mentors have started inviting young people to events and meetings where decisionmakers will already be present. One mentor was conducting a needs assessment at the Bangwe Health Center in Blantyre as part of her work and invited her mentees to join her. She knew key stakeholders, including ward counselors, traditional leaders, and services coordinators would be there so helped to organize a side meeting for mentees and the stakeholders to discuss advocacy strategies.
Create opportunities for to pause and reflect, in person and as a group
Creating opportunities for mentors and mentees to come together as a group to share successes, challenges, and best practices is critical for the success of any mentoring program. As part of its intergenerational mentoring program, HP+ holds regular, regional meetings in Malawi. The meetings not only serve as an opportunity for the young people and mentors to share their advocacy work and learn effective strategies from others, but it’s a great way to keep both mentors and mentees focused on the advocacy work. Mentors and mentees are excited to present their work and regular meetings incentivize them to advance their strategies during the weeks in-between gathering with their peers.
Experienced mentors are able to provide tangible solutions to the inevitable roadblocks mentees face, helping to keep advocacy efforts moving forward. In Malawi, the HP+ supported intergenerational network of mentees and mentors are steadily advancing YFHS , showing time and again that mentorship opens doors and reveals new avenues and strategies for the next generation of advocates. As for Deborah, thanks to her mentor, she’s combined forces with local youth club leaders who are now working with her to jointly advocate and build support for ending early marriage in her village.