Owen Hender

Youth-friendly Spaces in Tobago: An inclusive approach to adolescent development

Old men are making the decisions for a world they’ll never see. And they’re not asking our opinion, no, when they set priorities.
—Mystic Revealers’ Young Revolutionaries

“We just need adults to listen.” I have heard this request – or plea in some contexts – on countless occasions from adolescents in varying social circumstances within the Caribbean and beyond. A number of questions spring to mind, but two stand out: What are the barriers, perceived and actual, preventing meaningful conversations in decision-making between adolescents and adults? What approaches can help break these barriers?

Consultations with adolescents reveal that they are rarely afforded a safe, non-judgmental conversation space; they frequently feel they are listened to only in a placatory, tokenistic way. Gender roles and constraints create additional barriers to adolescents’ free expression of feelings, questions and fears. These perspectives, real or imagined, can prevent young people from voicing their opinions. Consequently, they are often left out of tackling social issues pertinent to them and the communities they dwell in.

Adolescents in contemporary Trinidad and Tobago face challenges that few in former generations have experienced. Against the backdrop of globalization, new social dynamics and cultural expressions can exacerbate social tensions between adults and adolescents. Shifts in levels of violence, HIV infection rates, employment opportunities, religious practices and changes in family structures encapsulate some of these societal movements. New technologies encourage many adolescents to take a global rather than local perspective on issues directly affecting them. Adults often chime that youths are our future, but from youths’ perspective, it appears to be a future adults set for them and not one they have an active role in creating.

To address these challenges and grant adolescents a meaningful and participatory role in their communities, Trinidad and Tobago Alliance for Sports and Physical Education drew on the concept of a Child-friendly Space and established a Youth-friendly Space (YFS) in the village of Speyside, Tobago, in 2007. This collaborative project is in partnership with UNICEF and Tobago House of Assembly.

Youth-friendly Spaces offer a holistic approach to promoting positive social change and individual development. The initiative encourages healthy behaviours by providing adolescents with youth-led sports and access to health services to address core issues relating to interpersonal violence and HIV infection. By actively soliciting adolescents’ opinions and including their voices in all stages of a community’s decision-making process, the aim is to go beyond listening. The success of the initiative within Speyside has resulted in its planned expansion to several more communities in the island over the next two years.

Youth in the community are central to the planning, practice and evaluation of the YFS. Adolescents’ participation in decision-making increases their self-confidence and furthers community cohesion. Their involvement also helps hold communities accountable for providing education on HIV prevention and supporting gender equality.

Recognizing power inequality in relationships is critical to addressing both HIV transmission and interpersonal violence, particularly against women and girls. It is important that HIV prevention strategies be integrated with an understanding of how gender roles affect behaviours that can act as barriers to HIV prevention initiatives. Gender sensitivity and understanding therefore underpin the majority of YFS services. To this end, both separate and mixed gender groups are provided with a non-judgmental space to explore issues around HIV and violence.

A community that strives for gender equality, viewing girls and women as advocates and boys and men as allies, will increase the self-confidence of women and girls in the community and, in turn, the success of strategies to prevent HIV transmission and end interpersonal violence.

Ideally, YFS should advance beyond the physical spaces of the community and youth. It should pervade the psyche and actions of all community members, helping to bridge existing tensions between adolescents and other community members. Communities can then realize their social connectedness and responsibility to one another. Emerging from these converging efforts, adolescents can flourish, creating a more positive future for entire communities.

Owen Hender is the project coordinator for Youth-friendly Spaces at Trinidad and Tobago Alliance for Sport and Physical Education (TTASPE), a UNICEF partner for Sport for Development. He previously managed a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) project that sought to nurture a culture of non-violence among young males in Port of Spain, Trinidad.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.