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World YWCA Young Women: Initiating Change, One Step at a Time

By Paola Salwan*

World Young Women Christian Association (YWCA):  the name says it all.

 The World YWCA is indeed all about young women, and most importantly, all about young women’s leadership. This is why on Monday the 11th of July, over 150 young women from all over the world gathered for the Young Women Leadership Dialogue Pre-Council in Zurich, to quietly build on their skills and strategise before the huge and busy conference of the International Women’s Summit and the World YWCA Business Meeting start.

Coming from all over the globe and eager to share their experiences, the young women benefited from sessions on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and positive sexuality (given by Ms Katie Chau from IPPF an Ms Vicky Rojas from the YWCA of Chile) , on Leadership (given by several young women leaders of the World YWCA movement)  and on women’s rights and technology (given by Ms Beatrice Frey from UN Women and Ms Sarah Davies, General Secretary of the YWCA of Aoteraoa/New Zealand).

The sessions, albeit different, had the same ultimate goal: getting skills and knowledge about claiming our rights as young women and advocating for them. Young Women openly spoke about issues of sexuality, challenging one another, hearing each other’s stories in a self-created safe space, respecting each other’s background and beliefs. Using technology to advance women’s rights came at a crucial moment, when most associations are engaging with social media to launch national campaigns and gain visibility for the work that they do.

The Take Back the Tech Campaign was introduced, with participants showing interest in using the tool back home. The session on leadership was particularly interesting as it was a 100% YWCA workshop, where young women spoke freely about their journey to become World Board Member, like Ms Arda Aghazarian, from the YWCA of Palestine, or Board Members of their national or local associations, or World YWCA Young Professional, or General Secretary of their associations.

 Many questions were discussed, notably on the issues of tokenism, leadership and empowerment, issues that inevitably arise when talking about young women’s leadership and that can be sometimes difficult to discuss. For a young woman, speaking up is sometimes the most difficult step of all.

How can the World YWCA movement involve meaningfully the young women members without tokenism? How can young women claim their rights and fight for them, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV and Violence Against Women? Those were the questions the young women have committed themselves to answering for now almost three years.

Indeed, a global consultation has been started at different levels within the movement, with young women making recommendations on what goals and actions need to be taken to not only advance their rights outside of the movement but to also reach the 25% of young women at leadership positions that the movement had promised to reach, and, beyond this mark, to achieve meaningful and respectful involvement of young women. These recommendations have been discussed and worked on once more during the pre-council, with young women standing up for the respect and protection of their rights and carrying on with the strategy building process.

Their final recommendations, to themselves, to the movement and to the World YWCA Board and office staff will be partly shared with the whole movement during the business meeting. Young women have understood that to achieve the goals they have set themselves, namely gender equality and meaningful involvement, they need to create a movement inside the World YWCA movement, and to advocate for what they believe in until change finally happens.

Written strategies and recommendations are not the only tools young women are using to make their voice heard: they’re getting quite creative and are extensively using social media and flashmobs to raise awareness and mobilise partners and friends.

Young women know that to reach their target of gender and organisational equality, their activism needs to be inclusive of all women, and to engage with men at the action level as well.

After all, isn’t true leadership not about the person, but rather about the cause that drives you?

*Paola Salwan Daher is the programme officer for young women leadership at the world YWCA in geneva and a member of the feminist collective nasawiya. She writes for cafe thawra and myrrh and mint. You can reach her at or through Twitter @CafeThawra. You can also check out her blogs: Cafe Thawra and Myrrh and Mint

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