This paper draws upon a PhD study of Youth Civic Engagement (YCE) and resilience in Zambia, Central Africa to make the following proposition: In order to fulfil the right of young people to be heard (United Nations, 1989), researchers need to be cognisant that YCE (Sherrod, 2010) and resilience literature is northern hemisphere dominated (Ungar, 2005 and 2008). As a result, this may lead to the inappropriate imposition of northern norms of youth development, resilience and YCE in southern contexts. In practice this may undermine the cultural life systems, where sources of resilience are embedded (Masten, 2001) that sustain young people (Nsamenang, 2009; Ungar, 2008; Husain, 2006; and Mason and Bolzan, 2010) and as such is possibly “the biggest threat to child well-being” (Masten, 2001, p.237).

that most adult definitions of YCE are often too restrictive to accommodate and analyse young people’s understandings of how they view their own engagements. Unique insights into their lives, which are unattainable from adult only perspectives. The challenge is to fulfil the rights of young people to be heard, but to do so without de-stabilising the very culture that sustains youth in their context (Mason and Bolzan, 2010; Percy-Smith and Thomas, 2010). 

Cultural context

A cultural competence approach (Husain, 2006) offers a method of meeting the aforementioned challenge. This involves three components: 1) knowledge, 2) awareness and 3) sensitivity. Prior to travelling to Zambia, the researcher conducted a literature review and met with people who had resided in Zambia to gather cultural knowledge. Awareness of power requires the prevention of bias and stereotyping. Sensitivity is the ability to act upon the knowledge and information to work in a cultural competent way during the research process.

Zambia is a post-colonial country with a dual legal system, comprising of a constitutional system, a legacy of British rule, and customary law and the tribal governance that varies among Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups (United Nations, 2006). Generally adults place an expectation upon young people to uphold the cultural traditions, which includes deference by young people towards adults and collectivism (Himonga, 2008; Caritas, 2008). The Zambian National Child Policy (NCP, 2006) recognises that children and young people face a range of adversities. These include hunger, inadequate accommodation, exposure to abuse, illiteracy, lack of basics and susceptibility to HIV/Aids and other infectious diseases (Kelly, 2008). The policy advocated for the promotion of gender equality and youth participation in national development (Sloth-Nielsen, 2008).

Research design and methodology 

The aim of this PhD research is to examine Zambian youth and adult perspectives of Youth Civic Engagement, through the following objectives:

1 Establish local understandings of YCE 
2 Identify existing types of YCE available in the cultural context
3 Locally define risk and resilience factors in relation to YCE 
4 To identify resilience perceived to be associated with YCE 

The researcher acquired ethical approval from both NUI Galway and the University of Zambia (UNZA) to progress the study. UNZA is a member of the UNESCO Child and Family Research network. Through UNZA an open recruitment process engaged a translator to enable the inclusion of potential participants who spoke only indigenous languages. UNZA also assisted with the establishment of a network of ‘gatekeepers’ to provide access to local communities. For logistical reasons the research included one urban and one rural community in three out of Zambia’s nine provinces, totalling six study sites. The research participants comprised of 80 young people, aged 12-14, and 68 adults, over the age of 18. The research relied on a mixed methods approach and progressed through two simultaneous strands: 1) qualitative research with participants and 2) quantitative through mapping of existing YCE opportunities. 

Qualitative Strand — Direct work with participants

This research strand incorporated two phases; A) Site contextualisation and B) Collaborative review of the draft research findings.

Phase A: Site contextualisation 

In each study site, cultural sensitivity led to the establishment of four focus groups arranged by age and gender. The catalyst question, “what is YCE?,” was posed to initiate the focus group dialogue. To conclude the focus group, participants summarised their discussions into key points. These points were shared at a plenary session through a collective intergenerational dialogue. 

Phase B: Collaborative review

The researcher circulated a copy of the draft research findings to participants in all of the study sites. Subsequently, the researcher met with the research participants to critically review the draft findings and agree the final version of the findings. As a collaborative process, the validity and cultural reliability of the research was enhanced and sought to prevent potential northern bias.

Quantitative Strand — Mapping existing YCE opportunities 

Through mapping of publicly available data sets, this strand accrued the number, location and type of existing voluntary Youth Services. This enhanced the contextualisation of YCE in Zambia and was used to ascertain if research participants were aware of the available services.  


A key study finding was the mismatch between adults’ and young people’s understandings of YCE. Adults understood YCE as political engagement, whereas young people defined YCE as “doing good things”, including helping neighbours, supporting others and taking part in community life. Craig, a young male, stated that civic engagement is “something you engage in not just for yourself, but for the good of others and future generations” (McArdle, 2012, p.146). 

Types of Youth Civic Engagement below illuminates the limited number of activities listed under political engagement compared to other types of engagement (Figure 3). This finding espouses Lister (2003) and Sanders and Munford’s (2008) perspective that adult-only definitions are inadequate to understand how young people view their own engagements. 

The mapping exercise of existing YCE services identified a total of 245 youth services within the three provinces. Similar to the participant identified services, access to youth services were determined by age, gender, location and socio-economic background. Participants in all six study sites unanimously agreed that young people would benefit from additional YCE opportunities. Generally, it was agreed that YCE opportunities are an important source of resilience for young people within the context.

The focus groups and inter-generational dialogue identified a variety of risk and resilience factors located at individual, family, community, societal and global level. The community level was the sole level where more resilience factors were present compared with risk factors. The education system played a pivotal role in providing access to YCE and sources of resilience at a community level. However, girls especially in rural areas were less likely to attend school than their male peers. Anna, a young female, explained “…because some they say us girls we get pregnant very early and then we have to stay a long time at our village. So they say it’s better for us not to be educated and it’s just better for us to get married” (McArdle, 2012, p. 167).

At the time of the research, payment of school fees from Grade 8 (approximately twelve years of age) onwards restricted progression for those unable to pay for their child’s education. As a result, young people become exposed to previously un-encountered risks, i.e. seeking employment. At a vital stage of development where sources of resilience could support them, the reality was they become distanced from such supports. As way of illustration, a young person can only access out-of-school youth services at fifteen years of age. There was a dearth of services for people below 15 years of age. 

From the data, gender also emerged as a significant factor impacting upon life chances. In the traditional tribal system girls start their journey into adulthood with puberty. This placed some girls in a particularly vulnerable position. In five of the six study sites, prostitution by girls was identified as YCE activity, as a necessity for the ‘good’ of the family, i.e. to purchase food. In this instance, young girls run the risk of sacrificing their futures for the benefit of the short-term need of the families. Culturally, prostitution based upon the concept of ‘good for the family’ was viewed simultaneously as both a risk and resilience factor. Such understandings can be defined as a ‘dual factor’. What does this mean for developing deeper understandings of resilience? What other dual factors might exist?


The study process revealed that by facilitating both youth and adult voices to be heard, generational mismatches can be identified. Young people’s understanding of YCE as doing ‘good’ moved the research beyond the narrow adult definition of YCE as political engagement. The holistic view of YCE revealed the significant contributions young people made towards their families and communities. For some young people, due to circumstances within the cultural context, these contributions are at the expenses of their own present and future well-being. The participatory research underpinned by cultural competence generated insights into YCE, along with the risk and resilience factors that determine access to YCE. It also identified associated sources of resilience and the identification of ‘dual factors’.