For Youth to Excel, Invest in Protection

by Mena Ayazi and Rachel Walsh Taza

I don’t feel protected. I don’t feel like if I disappeared today something would be said . . . It’s good to say that as young people we should continue to fight, but if we don’t start creating solutions to protect ourselves, then we are all going to end up dying, or going to choose between our own safety, stability, and families, or fighting for our own freedom,” says a young person in the recent “If I Disappear” report by the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth office.

Although hundreds of millions of dollars are invested into youth programming by the international community, young people around the world describe firsthand the critical gaps in the support for their safety and security when emergencies arise. The existing, formal protection mechanisms are primarily geared to adult or child human rights defenders and don’t account for the differences in how youth operate or the stereotypes and stigma around youth that undermine their ability to access the same types of support and services. Recent developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Myanmar/Burma, and Colombia underline the urgency of increased protection for young people. At Search for Common Ground, we are working to change that by developing new protection frameworks and mechanisms.

Through Youth Excel, a global program supported by USAID, we are taking bold steps to examine and address some of these gaps. Building on decades of experience working with youth partners in complex conflict contexts, Search consulted Youth Excel partners around the world and examined the latest evidence to better understand and respond to the protection challenges young people may face during the program. As a result, Youth Excel will adopt several initiatives to invest in youth protection and inclusion as key components of programming and research over the next year:

Youth knowledge and leadership should drive prevention, mitigation, and capacity building for protection. Traditional approaches to protection, like safeguarding, are often top-down, treating children and youth as beneficiaries needing protection. Youth Excel aims to change this by recognizing and strengthening the capacities of young people to protect themselves and identify the areas where they need additional support. Youth leadership in approaches to protection is critical. Not only do adults and youth perceive risks differently, as demonstrated in our research, but youth agency and decision making throughout the program cycle enhances their development and wellbeing.

Standardizing protection assessments, driven by youth themselves, to identify localized risks as well as existing capacities for protection. Youth Excel will support every youth partner to lead a protection assessment and develop action points for strengthening protection measures adapted to their specific context. The assessments also recognize the existing capacities and resources for protection, both informal and formal, that youth possess. This ensures youth are aware of the risks they face as well as their rights for protection and existing resources they can utilize to address context-specific protection concerns.

Holistic and intersectional understanding of protection — intertwined with gender and inclusion. The risks that young people face are often multi-layered and heavily affected by dynamics of gender, power, and exclusion within a context or environment. For this reason, Youth Excel integrates protection into an intersectional rapid gender analysis with an understanding that young people are not a homogenous group and that protection encompasses the safety, rights, and wellbeing of ALL young people. The “holistic security” initiative for human rights defenders has already drawn attention to the harm that arises by creating artificial siloes between physical, digital, and psychosocial security. Based on findings from the “If I Disappear” report, Youth Excel expands the understanding of protection even further to recognize how financial, legal, and political risks also affect young people’s ability to participate in development work.

Allocating sufficient resources for preventing and responding to threats and risks. One of the main challenges identified in our research and the “If I Disappear” report is the inadequate resources dedicated to protection. Youth Excel has taken a major step in this direction, supporting partners to dedicate 5% of direct project costs to address the main protection challenges and risks facing young people, staff, partners, programming, and operations throughout the Youth Excel program. Each partner also receives support for a protection focal point to lead coordination and awareness-raising on protection throughout the program.

Looking Ahead

Over the next year, Youth Excel will also explore integrating protection in the key areas of implementation research — the program’s main methodology for strengthening youth programming- as well as cultivating a culture of protection and preventative approaches across Youth Excel’s 15 youth-led and youth-serving partners and grantees in East Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. The range of partners and contexts also offers a unique learning opportunity. Youth Excel will draw on lessons learned and promising practices identified across the consortium to develop guidance and drive advocacy for necessary changes in the international development community to strengthen the protection of youth actors.

These new measures are particularly timely as demand for and attention to protection increases among the global community and in the U.S. government. Following advocacy by a coalition of youth-led and youth-serving organizations, USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently detailed the agency’s dedication and intentions for youth protection in a response letter. The U.S. House of Representatives also recently reintroduced the Youth, Peace, and Security Act on July 29 under the bipartisan leadership of Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY), John Curtis (R-UT), Dean Phillips (D-MN), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), with a focus on the protection of young people in the peace and security space.

We are excited about the possibilities of expanding and pioneering new approaches to protection across the growing Youth Excel network. Through systematic application of protection across activities, adequate support for youth leadership, a holistic and intersectional approach, as well as dedication and allocation of resources, Youth Excel is pioneering important initiatives in the global push for better youth protection.

Mena Ayazi is a Program Officer with the Children & Youth Team at Search for Common Ground and the Co-Chair of the U.S. Youth, Peace & Security Coalition.

Rachel Walsh Taza is a Program Manager with the Children & Youth Team at Search for Common Ground.




We are the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, working to build safe, healthy, and just societies worldwide.

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Search for Common Ground

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We are the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, working to build safe, healthy, and just societies worldwide.

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