Traditionally, research on issues affecting children and young people has tended to focus more on younger children, (the under-fives and school age children) or vulnerable children (orphans, ‘street children’ or child labourers). Similarly, many research and policy narratives have focused on the problems that children face, without always recognising how their choices - their agency - and their creativity can help in making the best of challenging circumstances.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a chance to reflect children and young people’s concerns and to develop policy agendas that acknowledge youth-led mobilisation around the issues that concern them. Increased policy attention is driving demand for research evidence particularly on issues affecting older adolescents and young people, and that can support their transition to adulthood.
This guide draws on a recent synthesis of research outputs focusing on children and young people from the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation. It highlights research that directly engaged young people, through peer research and participatory practice for example, or looked at the factors that enable (or indeed inhibit) their ability to influence what happens in their lives
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Livelihoods and aspirations
The impact of HIV/AIDS on the livelihood security and prospects of children and young people cuts across wellbeing, health and education themes and policy priorities. Research on uncertainties about food security for AIDS-affected young people in Malawi and Lesotho, captured their aspirations, their livelihood opportunities, the obstacles they faced and their decision-making processes. The researchers make the case that, as children contribute to household livelihoods (in some cases as household heads) and make decisions about their own lives, they can and should be consulted in policy discussions, and recognised as part of decision-making processes, rather than just as passive beneficiaries.
So what were the issues that concerned them? The researchers found that young people are very keen to learn vocational skills and to run small businesses; when asked about future plans and aspirations, they often mentioned enterprises related to Income Generating Activities (IGAs). Interestingly adult community members also talked about making vocational skills training and loans for businesses available to young people locally and both groups within communities repeatedly pushed these issues when asked to come up with policy recommendations for governments and NGOs.
Improving outcomes in food, nutrition and health choices
While many young people are active health-seekers – through medicine, treatment and advice - the extent, nature and outcomes of their health-seeking practices can vary considerably. Research from Ghana looks at gender and age, resources available, and health-seeking agency amongst CYP, and reports on their resourceful activities in obtaining treatment and taking responsibility for their own healthcare. This raises questions on how best to facilitate young people to seek healthcare safely and effectively. One way to do this, the research argues, is to extend appropriate youth-focused training to informal healthcare providers, who are often frequented by children and adolescents.
Child-led research in sub-Saharan Africa highlights the impact of mobility constraints and access to transport on education, freedom and social activities. The research shows that barriers such as travel costs, road safety and the long distances that CYP need to travel to reach clinics and medicines, can prevent children and young people from seeking healthcare in both urban and rural areas.
During a young person’s transition to adulthood, issues such as sexual and reproductive health care, unsafe abortion practices, and contraceptive availability are major factors. In Sierra Leone, village-based research highlights that teenage pregnancy has been identified as the child protection issue of central concern. Intervention models and implementation plans saw community members, and in particular adolescents, as the main drivers of schemes that included improved access to contraceptives, and sexual and reproductive health education and life skills - including the ability to say 'no' to unwanted sex and to negotiate and plan sexual activity.
Analysis of the social causes of under- and over-nutrition in children, and the emergence of the coexistence of under-nutrition and obesity within one household, is posing new research challenges that interweave parents’ educational levels and occupations, sibling numbers, energy intake, food preferences, and perceptions of body size. Research on urban environments in South Africa, Kenya and Chile illustrate the complex nature of child nutrition and demonstrates the need for an integrated multisector and multilevel approach to address these issues.
Access to education
Schools can be an invaluable source of support for children providing stability, reducing levels of stigma and strengthening resilience among vulnerable children by offering them a healthy and supportive social environment. But access to education and attainment can be negatively affected by many factors, often interlinked, such as child poverty, the impact of HIV/AIDS, disability and teenage motherhood.
In South Africa, many young women, when interviewed by researchers, highlighted teen pregnancy as a barrier to education as well as a significant economic and social setback, and a source of shame. There are also those girls who have given up on school who are not motivated to consistently practice effective birth control. Policy initiatives are required to address the “problem” of teenage pregnancy in order to enable young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and births, but which also encourage young women who have become mothers to continue to invest in their education and careers.
A study in Ghana and Tanzania, both countries that have introduced disability acts to address discrimination, looked at barriers and enabling factors in disabled students' access to education. Most disabled students interviewed highlighted the transformative potential of education and aspired to be advocates for other disabled people. Participation in Higher Education was presented as having the potential to enhance the capacity of disabled people, but also creates knowledge for social change that challenges prejudice and negative attitudes towards disabled people.
The increasing scale of cell phone usage among young people today is remarkable, not least in in sub-Saharan Africa, where school pupils in remote locations can call their peers to talk about homework problems, where phones facilitate relationships, and where smartphones allow access to Facebook and other social networking sites.
Cell phone use has wider societal implications for intergenerational dynamics, presenting a power shift in Africa from disproportionately elder-driven systems, towards a technological era where young people can play a much more proactive role in society.
Research in South Africa argues that there is plenty of potential for mobile technology to remove barriers that limit young people’s access to healthcare services. However, access to mobile technology is still uneven and subject to technological and financial constraints. But there are opportunities to strengthen links between mobile phone-based (m-health) initiatives, and youth-friendly clinics and school health services, to ensure that health-seeking behaviour is supported. This needs to be tempered with raising awareness of the unrealiabilty of some freely available Internet-based healthcare information and advertisements.