The group was amazing; it was great to connect with new people. I learnt a lot of things about street harassment and how to act if it is happening. Before the project, I had no idea how to react, what to do, but during the course I learnt techniques to handle these situations. As in school it is not a topic we talk about, it was interesting and helpful for me to meet other girls that had experienced similar situations to me. We have all used the virtual map and shared it with our friends. I recommend it — it is a good resource to move safely in the city. I enjoyed creating videos very much. Today we are in a society where we can do activism through photos and videos easily. To other young people, I would say: Don’t be afraid of taking part in projects like this, you will always find supportive, nice people who will help you join the group.
Young women from Spain and Belgium joined forces to fight street harassment. Together, they have raised their voices about this global problem. No doubt, their activism was the first step towards big change.
The empowerment of youth. We, adults, are used to having everything under control, but when it comes to participation, we must learn how to trust youth: to leave an empty space for youth to speak up, and for us to hear and work with what they actually said. If we plan everything all the time, there is no space for their voices.
The initiative was organised by the Spanish and Belgian office of Plan International, an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. Here, we interview Agus Gansievich, coordinator of national projects, and Julia Lopez Duque, an advocacy manager from Spain.
What was the spark that started this project?
The idea came from some research Plan International conducted about street harassment. Figures show that 89% of the youth surveyed in Lima had experienced street harassment; 84% in Madrid; 80% in Kampala; 63% in Delhi; and 73% in Sydney. Further research done in Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi found that 91% of young women and 28% of young men had experienced street harassment. Seeing this, we decided to launch something bigger than research: an international campaign backed by European funding. The Belgium office of our organisation shared our concerns on the topic, so together we decided that a good angle would be to work on gender equality with youth.
How did you build up the partnership?
Plan International is a federation with 75 offices in different countries around the world, and we are used to working in alliance with other offices. We have a particularly close relationship with the Belgian team because we have collaborated on several youth programmes before.
How did you manage to have a good collaboration?
Communication was fluent, as we had regularly scheduled video calls. We could also meet in person as the project started before COVID-19, in July 2019, though we had to implement most of it in 2020-2021. The pandemic forced us to change our plans, but also gave us the opportunity to have longer discussions through Teams and other applications. Having a shared folder with all the documents and assigning the responsibilities to team members helped us to be clear on our vision while developing the work packages. Our collaboration turned out well, so we’re sure we’ll collaborate on other projects in the future.
How did you build up the project?
Basically, stage zero was contacting local authorities and local organisations in various cities, as their support was a must for the success of this project. Then, we used a digital mapping tool to identify public spaces where young people, especially women, felt safe or the opposite — uneasy and scared. This platform enabled young women to share their experiences, which were later used in the advocacy phase of the project. We also organised educational activities from September 2019 to June 2021, to raise awareness among teenagers. This part was essential — to make participants conduct their own research, understand the situation better, and come up with their own conclusions. Just after this, the advocacy work could begin. Young people’s recommendations and reports were transferred to the local authorities of the cities involved, such as Seville, Madrid and Barcelona from Spain; and Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi from Belgium.
Did you face any difficulties when implementing the project?
Of course, COVID-19 changed our timeline and we needed to adapt some meetings that we had planned to be face-to-face. For example, the huge summit we were supposed to hold in Brussels, gathering 500 youngsters from Spain and Belgium, became a virtual event. It was a challenge to recruit the originally planned number of participants. Therefore, to involve more people, we connected entire groups of young people from classrooms and local associations, providing live translations in French, Catalan, Spanish and English. Also, due to COVID-19 restrictions, we had to postpone several meetings, at which young people were presenting their recommendations to local decision-makers, to a later phase.
Who were the participants?
Street harassment and safety concerns all youngsters, so the main thing we looked for was to have participants interested in the topic. We targeted 15–25-year-old girls and boys, with more focus on girls, as they were the ones suffering more from this problem. However, we wanted boys on board as well, offering them a different point-of-view — to perceive safety from their peers’ (the girls’) perspective, and empathise with them. In Spain 363 young people and in Belgium 43 young people participated in the training programme. For the digital event titled J500, we had a total of 427 young participants from Belgium and Spain. Plus, more than 3000 youngsters shared their experiences through the digital mapping platform.
What was their feedback? What did young people learn?
Girls realised that being a victim of harassment is not an individual or unique case, but is a global experience. Sexual harassment happens not only in their city, and not exclusively to them, but all over the world. Despite the location where it occurs, the characteristics of violence and abuse are very similar. Meanwhile, boys reported that the experience was enriching, because it is not a topic they were used to speaking or hearing about. The project offered them a safe place and tools to understand, talk and raise awareness about threats to safety, which is key to protecting it.
How did you engage young people?
We applied a methodology called Champions of Change designed by Plan International, which had previously been tested and used with various target groups. It does not only engage youth, but puts the focus directly on the participants, who are the centre of the process. First, they explore a couple of concepts. In the case of this project, they understood, for example, the definition of harassment, the role of education and training on the issue, gender-inclusive urban planning, daily life and personal experiences. Once they understand the theory, they are the ones who decide what to focus on during the research and awareness-raising activities. This method empowers participants to recognise that they are the future changemakers. We built on the Lundy model of participation which says that children must be given space, voice, audience and influence in educational decision-making. The recommendations developed by the young people were transferred to policy makers, asking them to resolve the situation. To promote our activities, we used social media and invited young influencers to efficiently communicate our cause, in a friendly, youthful tone. Seeing other young people making their voice heard, our participants felt inspired and encouraged to launch and share their own campaigns.
What change did young people want to bring?
One example was to stop people looking away from street harassment cases. The group in Madrid decided to focus on raising awareness about the feelings of young women who were experiencing sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in public spaces. After our girls realised that harassment is happening to almost every girl and woman, and it is important to speak up for change, they did a street action in a very central park (El Retiro) in Madrid. They exhibited stories of real testimonies of harassment, written on large boards. They said that it felt like a real accomplishment to see passers-by getting angry, curious and thankful when reading their messages. Another goal that young people highlighted in their policy recommendations was that local authorities should take measures for safer streets, with a particular focus on education, transport, youth participation, campaigning and legislation.
What are the outcomes of the advocacy work?
Some cities were more advanced regarding urban safety and gender equality. For example, Barcelona already had policies about transport and public areas, while in Madrid our input contributed to the local plan being developed, to make Madrid a safer city for all. Also, in Seville there was an event in the city hall where our girls shared their recommendations personally, and policy makers said they would consider their findings in the process of renewing the local gender plan.
How did you get the attention of policy makers?
Fortunately, such a big organisation as Plan International does not only do advocacy work related to this project, but also on a bigger scale. Therefore, it was easier for us to knock on the door of policy makers representing the organisation. Having a direct exchange with the groups of girls in the municipality buildings was also a special moment for policy makers, who stepped out from their weekly routine and heard fresh views from young people. From our side, our girls felt important knowing that people in power were listening to them. Some advice for when contacting local authorities — we suggest finding a contact person who can be a technical advisor throughout the project.
What were the main learnings for young people?
Maybe patience? The most rewarding moment was when the girls realised that street harassment is a collective social problem, and it is in their power to do something to change it. Even though they were not so happy with the outcome of the consultations with policy makers, because there were no immediate results, they understood that advocacy processes take a lot of time. Real change will not come today or tomorrow, but after some time. Another thing they learned is that sometimes they don’t have to go to politicians, but they can make a difference by speaking in their schools, or with their friends, in their habitual surroundings.
What was your team composition?
Having the support of many different departments of Plan International, we had various experts in youth participation, empowerment, non-formal education, communication and advocacy. Also, it was enriching to have partnerships with different cities and organisations involving many stakeholders — ranging from representatives of youth and feminist organisations to experts in urban planning and transport, who each had different perspectives on this issue.
From an organisational point of view, what was crucial to achieve your objectives?
Collaboration between policy makers, local authorities and youth organisations is always key. It is essential to plan everything realistically. Don’t have too big expectations that look good on paper but are difficult to make real. What’s more, be flexible and creative, as things never go exactly the way we plan.
Sara Mora Thomasparticipant from Spain
Participation should not be adult-centred. Clearly, it is not real participation if youngsters are there only to make pictures look better. We often say at Plan International that we have to actively involve youngsters. Having experience in communication, campaigns and advocacy as well, I am aware it is also very important for young people to learn how politics works, so that they know how to make a change in a realistic way and not to ask for big, unachievable things.
Julia Lopez Duqueproject team member
Girls and boys united for one cause: to raise awareness about street harassment and try to decrease it! Among their best practices you can find catchy media campaigns, flashmobs, videos, and a digital mapping tool of safe and unsafe urban places. Moreover, young people’s voices reached policy makers who are still building on their proposals.
Where in your city do you feel safe and happy? What about the places where you feel unsafe, uneasy or excluded? Where did you get harassed?
Map Safe Places
In this mapping tool, you can tell the world about it and discover others’ experiences. Madrid, Sevilla, Brussel, Ghent, Barcelona, Antwerp, Charleroi, and Alcobendas are the cities that have joined so far.
About the project
EU Youth Programme Priority:
Participation in Democratic Life
Youth Participation / Activism and Decision Making
Aside from traditional social media platforms and Plan International’s websites, the great outreach was due to the young influencers involved. Their collaboration made communication super engaging. Additionally, the project appeared on TV, radio and in newspapers, on the local, regional, and national level — both in Spain and Belgium. An extensive report was written to summarise their findings.