UPSHIFT in Burundi: Empowering vulnerable adolescents
Empowering youth to build skills and opportunities through social innovation and entrepreneurship
Anita didn't choose to drop out of school. The fifth child in a family of ten, she had to leave school in grade nine because of an illness, and her parents couldn't afford to send her back once she recovered.
"After staying at home and doing house chores for a few years, I realized going back to school was no longer an option for me, so I decided to give a new direction to my life," she says.
"I didn't know that such opportunity could be accessible to a girl like me. I came to learn, but I am going back home knowing that I found my calling. Ten years from now, I see myself working as a trusted community leader providing care to abused adolescents."
Burundi's UPSHIFT experience is the first one in a francophone country. It has been designed to empower adolescents like Anita, who wants to bring their community engagement to the next level. The programme aims to help the most vulnerable adolescents become social innovators, through a combination of social innovation workshops, mentorship, materials and seed funding, designed to equip adolescents with the skills and resources to identify problems and challenges in their communities and implement solutions to these problems, in the form of products or services.
UNICEF Burundi country office has years of experience working on addressing adolescent's most pressing issues. UPSHIFT complements the current life skills programme.
This ongoing project, currently implemented in seven provinces, brings together adolescents from various backgrounds into solidarity groups, providing them with safe spaces where they can meet with peers, socialize and become part of the community. In the solidarity groups youth leaders receive intensive training to lead structured programming, with the goal to increase positive behaviour to adapt to everyday life. To foster group dynamics, members engage in group savings; they can access credit on a rotational basis and build additional basic financial skills.
The solidarity groups have also proven to be a platform for adolescent participation and a mechanism for community resilience. With the introduction of UPSHIFT in Burundi, the solidarity groups will also be a non-physical "Adolescent Innovations Lab".
In August 2019, UNICEF with its partner Bibliotheque Sans Frontieres, trained a first cohort of UPSHIFT mentors.
In early October, Anita and her friends formed a group to apply and join the UPSHIFT Innovation Bootcamp. They chose to address the issue of early pregnancy among adolescent girls in their community.
"We realized that emotional and physical violence within the family are pushing many adolescents, including girls to flee from their families," says Anita. "I strongly believe that, when you are afraid to go home, there is no peace, you'd prefer wandering in the street and sleep next to a bar where strangers can buy you drinks or food."
Caring about adolescent's issues is not new to her. She used to put money aside to buy soap for her homeless friends, so they could shower and wear clean clothes.
The innovation bootcamp she joined aims at developing acquisition of new skills, team work and critical reflections. Participants foster social innovation through the development of a community project to be implemented with their peers.
"When we did the stakeholders mapping, we found out that there are many services available in our community, but adolescents do not go there because they are afraid," Anita explains. "My idea is to empower a group of adolescents who can support their peers to go to protection services when the need arises."
Adding, "I am confident that, when adolescents talk to each other and trust each other, they can just avail themselves to listen to their desperate peers- and they can even report cases of abuse on behalf of the victims."
Reflecting on her bootcamp experience, Anita now feels empowered -- and she also realized that she could trust adults.
"I particularly liked the mentors," she says. "For the first time, I found out that adolescents and adults can have a nurturing relationship, I felt valued and I could allow myself to be just myself."