Meaningful Youth Engagement Training Guide

Toolkit arrow-right Before you start

The Meaningful Youth Engagement (MYE) tool is a guide to effectively involving young people in youth-focused programmes. Its goal is to identify some of the gaps in planned youth participation, and to offer practical solutions alongside scenarios for making youth participation an essential part of any youth programme.

Table of content

Session 1: Understanding and defining youth
Session 2: Meaningful youth engagement
Session 3: Importance of youth engagement
Session 4: Levels of youth engagement
Session 5: Strategies for engaging with youth at a community level
Session 6: Sustaining effective youth engagement


The Meaningful Youth Engagement Training Guide has been developed to contribute to positive, meaningful engagement with young people and their empowerment at all stages in decision-making, programming and policymaking. It is a tool for creating an inclusive and enabling environment, where those in governance or leadership positions can hear and act upon the voices of youth with intersecting vulnerabilities. This is vital, and starts by ensuring that people in positions of power understand the importance and benefits but also the pitfalls of engaging with young people.

The tool targets stakeholders working with young people who want to enhance the meaningful youth engagement in their programming. It is a training guide that provides explainers, exercises and other activities. These can be used to help adult-led organisations embed meaningful youth engagement in their ways of working. The guide helps to create inclusive opportunities and a platform for youth to actively participate in decision-making on policies, strategies and programmes that affect them.

Session 1: Understanding and defining youth


  • To establish the definition of youth across different contexts.
  • To create an understanding of the diverse backgrounds of young people from different communities.

Definition of youth

The definition of youth varies from one context to another. According to the United Nations (UN), youth – also referred to as young people – are anyone between the ages of 15 and 24. In Kenya, youth are aged18-34, in Zambia 15-35, in Rwanda 16-30, and in Uganda 12-30, while in Ethiopia they are aged 15-29. Other definitions of a young person from different entities/organisations are:

  • UN/UNESCO/ILO: ages 15-24 (reference: UN Instruments statistics)

  • UN Habitat (Youth Fund): ages 15-32 (reference: Agenda 21)

  • The African Youth Charter: ages 15-35 (reference: African Union, 2006)

As there are so many different definitions of youth, it can be helpful to adopt a lifecycle approach and recognise youth as a time when people make the transition between childhood and adulthood. An approach like this takes into account the diversity among young people that stems from their life experiences, granted/denied access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) rights and services, and age and gender differences. This provides the opportunity to engage with youth from older age ranges too.

Diversity of youth

Youth as a group is highly varied, with the young people identifying themselves in many ways. This may include their ethnicity, social class, age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, rites of passage, struggles in life, educational achievements, income level, geographical location, disability, religion, and many other aspects of their lives. These categorisations overlap and combine to shape identity, as well as to shape interactions within their society/community.

Ideally, in a diverse society, we should all feel free to be ourselves and express ourselves, while at the same time treating others with respect. The diversity of the different groups of young people that exist in our communities should be taken into consideration.

Session 2: Meaningful youth engagement


  • To explore the implications of meaningful youth engagement and its importance.
  • To understand the consequences of a lack of involvement of young people in decision-making.

Defining and understanding meaningful youth engagement

Meaningful youth engagement is about ensuring that young people are actively engaged at various levels of decision-making (design, implementation and evaluation) on policies, programmes, guidelines and laws that affect their lives. It recognises all the knowledge, skills and ideas that young people bring to the table. It sees young people as valued stakeholders for creating effective and inclusive policies, programmes and environments.

Youth engagement can be defined as “the active, empowered and intentional partnership with youth as stakeholders, problem solvers and change agents in their communities” (Youth Leadership Institute 2009, p.13). Meaningful youth engagement is defined as seeking information, expressing ideas, taking a concerned public interest, analysing situations and making personal choices, an active role in different steps of a process, and being informed or consulted on decisions.

Importance of understanding different groups of young people

Promoting diversity, tolerance, true inclusion and acceptance of diverse groups in society is key to ensuring meaningful engagement with young people in all their diversity. This can be done by stimulating contact with, exposure to, and communication between youth from diverse backgrounds. Within this process, it is vital that the interaction space is safe. The young people must be sure that they won’t be exposed to discrimination or harassment. Or to any other emotional, psychological or physical harm. One way of breaking down the barriers to understanding and accepting diversity could be to provide opportunities to learn from the experience of people from diverse groups. This requires an open mindset. That helps to understand the experiences and backgrounds of people from diverse groups, and to see things from their perspectives.

Case scenario:

Jared is one of the volunteer teachers at a community school run by Cheshire Homes. When Jared made it to his senior year, his father was so proud because Jared’s academic performance was graded the best at the school. His grades were so good that he topped his class and school in all subjects except for physics and chemistry. Jared’s father, as an influential man in society, vowed that he would ensure his son would join the best university, on condition that Jared pursues medicine or engineering as a career. Jared, on the other hand, froze with fear when he thought about this, because his father’s demands were not his wishes. Jared had no interest in medicine or engineering. Instead, he had a strong passion and interest in pursuing a career in teaching. But because his father would not listen to him, Jared went on to pursue a career in engineering.

On his graduation day, after five years of studying at the country’s top university, Jared took his degree certificate and gave it to his father. He handed it over, saying, “here is your dream, I am going to pursue my own dream.” With those words, he left his parents’ home to pursue a career in teaching. This subsequently led to Jared drifting apart from his family.

After training as a geography teacher, Jared went to teach at one of the best international schools, having been identified as a great teacher during his training. He volunteers at one of the community schools too. He has helped students to realise their potential and improve their academic performance so as to compete with learners from the country’s best performing secondary schools. He has also been ask to train fellow teachers in new, effective teaching methods because of the impact he has made himself. Every time he is asked what makes him the happiest, he says that teaching others really does that.


Based on the scenario, take about 15 minutes to reflect on and discuss the following questions with the participants:

  • Why were Jared’s interests and passions not understood, considered or acknowledged?
  • What do you think contributed to Jared becoming a great teacher?
  • How best could Jared’s father have handled the decisions about Jared’s career?
  • How different was Jared’s case from how young people are treated in our society?

Session 3: Importance of youth engagement


  • To provide a deeper understanding of the importance of youth engagement.
  • To gain a better understanding of the consequences of not engaging youth.

Young people are important stakeholders in every society. So engaging with them is essential because of the impact it can have in different ways:

  • Promoting social inclusion, equity and justice for access to SRH services.
  • Promoting active participation in decision-making on policies, strategies and programmes that affect young people, by creating an inclusive and enabling environment where their voices are heard.
  • Creating an environment in which young people feel valued in society and know that their contributions count.
  • Fostering active citizenship – young people recognising that they can play a role in addressing issues and being part of the solutions themselves instead of blaming authorities or institutions involved.
  • Building youth leadership and strengthening young people’s capacities.
  • Helping to influence service uptake, and challenging social norms.

Additionally, youth engagement is seen as more sustainable and effective when solving challenges on local, national, regional and global level. Their innovative ideas drive social changes which generate positive outcomes. Furthermore, their participation promote larger-scale conversations and social participation as well. Engaging young people in decision-making can build social cohesion in conflict-affected areas.

The above shows that young people are effective change makers if given proper rights to participate. A discussion of issues such as healthcare, poverty, human rights, inequalities strengthen their capabilities, shape their world views and has an effect on their attitudes and thoughts. The processes of engagement and meaningful talks equip them with better problem-solving skills and this will eventually help them to become effective leaders.

Meaningful youth engagement in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programmes ensures that young people with intersecting identities become active participants and leaders in their community (role models) and that they can make decisions on matters that affect them.

It is a fundamental right for young people to participate in matters that affect their lives. For

young people, their SRHR are a crucial part of this – whether they are sexually active or not.  This right is affirmed in UN conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action.

Engaging with young people will lead to better-developed interventions to promote adolescent SRHR, as the youth themselves are the best people to voice their needs, realities and opinions. Additionally, they will be more fully informed, as their knowledge on several SRHR topics increases.

Case scenario:

Otieno is a 21-year-old living with a disability. He is still at school and is always among the best students in terms of academic performance. Otieno is very knowledgeable, but when it comes to participating in activities like debates, or campaigning to be a school prefect, the teachers and other students see his disability and, because of that, don’t usually give him the opportunity to take part. They all assume that his disability makes participation impossible.

  1. If you were a headteacher who had been trained in youth engagement,
    how would you address this issue?
  2. What would be the importance of addressing this issue?



  • Bring pieces of plain paper, pens/pencils and a flip chart.
  • Prepare a flip chart sheet with the following statement, setting it aside and
  • turning it upside down so no one can read it: In our society, everybody is equal, and everyone has the right to participate in decision-making.


  1. Welcome the participants and explain: “This next exercise will help you understand the importance of youth engagement.”
  2. After reading the case scenario, let participants write down their answers on a piece of paper.
  3. Invite two or more volunteers to share their thoughts.

Session 4: Levels of youth engagement


  • To understand the different levels of youth engagement.
  • To see safe spaces as a key ingredient for meaningful youth engagement.

Young people can be engaged with at different levels –  and for different purposes. But all involved need to be aware of which types of engagement are meaningful, what to avoid, and how we can promote it. Various authors have described the concept of youth participation in its different forms. A specific framework first emerged in 1992 with Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation. This ladder is divided into three types of non-participation, including manipulation and tokenism, and five types of participation in which young people can play a more active and empowering role. Subsequent frameworks and typologies have been elaborations on the ladder or more nuanced versions of it.

Flower of participation, by YouAct and CHOICE for Youth and SexualityA great resource available currently, which further adapts the ladder of participation, is the Flower of Participation codeveloped by two youth-led organisations: YouAct and CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality (see image). “The Flower of Participation is a tool that uses the metaphor of a blooming flower to describe the different forms of meaningful youth participation and how it can grow and flourish”.

It is accompanied by a narrative further describing and elaborating on all the different parts of the metaphor: Flower of Participation narrative.

There is also a video: Flower of Participation video.

Case scenario:

Choolwe is an 18-year-old resident of the Samfya district. She and her boyfriend Felix agreed to only have protected sex. One day, she went to the nearest health facility to ask for some contraception that she could use. At the clinic, she was attended to by Tumelo, the nurse on duty. Tumelo also happened to be a friend of Choolwe’s aunt, who worked as a teacher at one of the nearby schools.

While at the clinic, Choolwe explained to Tumelo that she needed some contraceptives so that she and her boyfriend could have protected sexual intercourse. Surprisingly, Tumelo got very angry and told Choolwe off for deciding to become sexually active before getting married. Without giving Choolwe a chance to say any more, she told her to go home to help with the chores.

Later that day, Tumelo met up with Choolwe’s aunt at the market and told her that Choolwe had visited the clinic to ask for contraceptives. Choolwe’s aunt later made matters worse by talking about it to Choolwe’s parents.

NOTE: While most African cultures say that sex should be saved for marriage, studies show that many young people are sexually active without being married. This indicates the need to promote safe sex.


Based on this case scenario, reflect on the following questions with the participants:

  1. How do you think Choolwe felt after being told off by Tumelo at the clinic?
  2. Do you think Choolwe could still seek services from the same clinic in the future?
  3. Do you think this happens in your community or in nearby communities?

Session 5: Strategies for engaging with youth at a community level


  • To explore and adopt effective strategies for engaging youth at a community level.

Activity 1:


  • Bring pieces of plain paper, pens/pencils and a flip chart.
  • Prepare a flip chart sheet with the following statement, setting it aside and turning it upside down so no one can read it: Leaving no one behind.


  1. Welcome the participants and explain: “This next exercise will help you understand the strategies for youth engagement at a community level.”
  2. Kindly ask participants (in two or three groups depending on the number) to discuss the different strategies for engaging with youth at community level and then ask them to write down their answers on a piece of paper or the flip chart. Invite someone from each group to share their answers.

Activity 2:

  1. Divide the participants into smaller groups.
  2. Ask all the participants to close their eyes and reflect on a time when they felt left out of something that they could have contributed to.
  3. After some reflection, ask them the following questions:
  4. How did you feel after being left out?
  5. How best could you have been included by the people you looked up to?

Different types of strategies

  • Community outreach, training and empowerment of young people that represent the populations targeted by their programmes. Young people themselves and local partners can assist in providing access to hard-to-reach populations.
  • Music, dance and drama that empower upcoming young musicians to develop their talent. They can create music or videos with messages that will bring change or act as a form of advocacy on SRHR and other services.
  • Debates at community-level youth groups to create a good basis and platform for advocacy. The issues affecting young people will become clear during dialogue.
  • Capacity building so that young people can become community activists, representing the voices of those left behind and whose rights are being violated.
  • Educating leaders in authorities and institutions in the community on the importance of youth participation, as well as the rights and responsibilities of duty bearers and young people in the community – in line with sustainable development goals on engaging youth.
  • Creating safe spaces for young people to get actively involved. For example, through strengthening institutions like health facilities with youth-friendly services/corners where young people can access SRHR services without fear – leading to good health and well-being.
  • Intergenerational dialogue in which young people can have discussions with older generations – creating a safe basis for advocacy and behaviour-change mindset.
  • Sports initiatives that encourage talent development and bring together young people with different social identities to actively participate. At the same time, this creates a platform to share the needs for institution-strengthening and policy.
  • Involving youth at the decision-making stage.
  • Establishing youth groups – creating a voice through tools and activities.
  • Creating youth spaces where they can meet and reflect on their own creativity and energy.
  • Skills and awareness building, on local systems and policy change strategies.
  • Mentoring for supporting growth (creating a model that covers all types of mentoring).
  • Learning exchanges.
  • Promoting historical and cultural awareness.
  • Creating enrichment activities and resources for career development.

Creating safe spaces for SRH education for young people

A ‘safe space’ refers to a physical or digital context where people can express their views, needs and opinions. They should be able to enter into dialogue with each other at peer-to-peer level in a non-polarising, non-judgmental and respectful way. It should be a space where people can be sure that they will not be exposed to discrimination or harassment. Or to any other emotional, psychological or physical harm.

The underlying cultural ethos and beliefs in African societies make talking about SRHR in everyday life a challenge for young people – especially for minoritised youth. At times when they need to make critical decisions concerning their sexual orientation and/or choices, ideas, norms and values created by society that are linked to the cultural beliefs creates stereotypes among those that choose to talk about SRHR openly. In many cases, this has led to most people not being open, for fear of being judged. The lack of safe spaces with accurate information has often made the situation worse. So safe, friendly spaces are vital. They can provide a break from stereotyping, unwanted opinions, and having to explain yourself. Safe spaces also make people feel supported, valued and respected.

A safe space may take a different form in different contexts. There is often a need for exclusive spaces where people who are vulnerable, or who have been ‘othered’, can be among people of their own group, with shared characteristics. These are peer-led safe spaces that nurture mutual trust and safety. The space, whether virtual or in-person, should provide the following:

  • It should offer respite, be a place where the members can drop their guard, feel a sense of community, and recover – while experiencing the solidarity of others with shared experiences.
  • It should be a space to build skills, share and learn from each other, get relevant information – on services for example – or engage in recreation. It should also be a place where community-based activism flourishes.
  • It should contribute to the development of a collective voice, and mobilise the shared community around intersectional SRHR advocacy that is led by minoritised people.

Ultimately, however, potential members are the ones to determine how they need a particular safe space to be at a particular time within the programme.

Measuring youth engagement

While it’s important to have strategies that help to ensure that youth engagement is included, it is also important to ensure that youth engagement is measurable. To measure the levels of this engagement in a programme or project, you need to make sure that all stakeholders, especially youth, are included in the process. Several tools and strategies can be used for measuring meaningful youth engagement. One possibility is a Meaningful Youth Engagement Scorecard.


If there is a locally adopted template, use it to create a Scorecard for one of the activities that the participants took part in, so as to measure their levels of satisfaction. This will provide an indication of how young people would be able to measure the performance of stakeholders during training.

Session 6: Sustaining effective youth engagement


  • To develop effective ways of sustaining successful youth engagement.

Creating effective sustainability in youth engagement can be done in various ways across various environments, cultures and communities. However, there are certain general aspects that will help to create sustainability:


  • Empowering young people with knowledge of their rights and equipping them with leadership skills. They can drive change in their communities and countries. Youth-led organisations and networks should be supported and strengthened, because they contribute to the development of civic leadership skills among young people, especially minoritised youth.​
  • Promoting and establishing active and vibrant youth networks as partners. Young people can work in partnership when communicating the development agenda to their peers and communities at a local level, as well as across countries and regions.
  • Training young people for youth activism as change makers. Young people also have the power to act and mobilise others. Youth activism is on the rise the world over, supported by broader connectivity and access to social media.
  • Promoting youth-led activities, policy analysis, evidence generation, and leadership. Part of being young involves making sense of personal experiences and asking questions about the world around you. Youth have the capacity to identify and challenge existing power structures and barriers to change, and to expose contradictions and biases.
  • Establishing a youth advisory board of advocates at a local, district, regional or national level, where training can even be done to empower young people to break down attitudinal barriers. These kinds of training opportunities could also be effective at a broader community level. Programmes can support youth-adult partnership training for community leaders and young people to increase intergenerational understanding, elevate youth voice, and foster youth leadership within the community.
  • Strengthening the capacity of partners, civil society organisations (CSOs) or organisations that work with young people, and of their understanding of the young people themselves. The definition of ‘youth’ varies among cultures and contexts. In some communities, youth are identified based on their level of responsibility to family and community. Most organisations, however, use some type of age range to describe the population, but even these differ. While it is up to each organisation to decide how they define youth, it is important to remember that young people in the lower minoritised groups are in as much need of mentorship, specialised leadership training, self-efficacy workshops, and increased family involvement. So, the need to strengthen an organisation’s understanding of young people and youth participation needs to be addressed, to ensure the sustainability and continuity of youth engagement.
  • Building young people’s capacity for social accountability and leadership.


Reflect on the following questions with the participants after reviewing the earlier highlighted point:

  1. Why should sustainability be considered in youth programming?
  2. Who is responsible for making programmes and activities centred on youth sustainable?
  3. From a practical point of view, how can sustainability be ensured in youth programming in your context?

NOTE: Ideally, sustainability systems should be considered for youth-centred programmes, because of the changing face of youth. As young people grow into adulthood, children are becoming young people. Sustainability systems would require the interests of youth to be considered at all levels, and this would be best achieved by including young people in strategy development.


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