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“Participatory approaches are essential to implementing a contextual approach effectively: we need to understand the realities of young people’s lives.”

Abi, Founder and CEO of Abianda, shares her experience of working with gang-affected young women, and building a social enterprise based on participatory principles.

Abianda has a unique model of engagement, taking a solution focussed and competence based approach, combined with participatory techniques. When I set up the organisation, I was keen to bring about a culture shift in the way services are delivered to young women, who typically neither felt safe accessing, nor trusted, services. Young women therefore deal with adversity, risk and harm within their peer group, rather than reaching out for professional support. As this service provision wasn’t working for gang-affected young women, I wanted to create something that did work, and so founded Abianda based on three defining decisions:

1. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young women

Why? No one knows a young woman’s life like the young woman themselves, so it’s right and logical they are embedded within the organisation so that we can understand the realities of their lives. We work in a collegiate and collaborative way so that young women influence the design and delivery of our services.

2. Have a model of growth which delivered social impact

How? Young women are embedded into the infrastructure of the organisation, so as Abianda grows, we have the opportunity to support young women to develop new business skills and to learn new organisation functions themselves. We therefore can deliver social impact through the services we deliver, as well as through our infrastructure as we grow, thus staying loyal to the principles of participation at the heart of the organisation.

3. Work as a business not charity

To be sustainable and self-sufficient. To have the greatest social impact and freedom to develop services as is needed by young women, we need to diversify our income streams and grow a social enterprise fit to survive austerity.

Quite simply, Abianda shifts the central question from a traditional or deficit approach to recognise survival and skill in the face of adversity: from “what is she doing wrong?” to “how has she managed to survive?” This is a refreshing approach for young women, who start to recognise their strengths, strategies and resources.

Abianda’s model is rooted firstly in youth work theory and principles (drawing on Paulo Freire’s work on power and oppression); secondly participation theory and principles (drawing on Professor Robert Chambers); and thirdly, solution focussed brief therapy techniques. Two principles hold those three strands together – the first is that we position young women as experts, valuing the empirical knowledge and research that she brings from her life. Secondly, we believe that people who are facing a problem are best placed to find the solution to that problem. We are therefore continually trying to tip the balance of power in favour of young women.

Within the team and across our services we have been reflecting on how participatory approaches can help inform contextual safeguarding. At Abianda we believe that context is everything when working with gang-affected young women: understanding how young women’s lives play out in different contexts is essential to understanding the risk and harm they may face, and how to support them navigate those. Furthermore, Abianda works with young women affected by gangs in a range of ways and with a broad spectrum of gang association. Young women across this spectrum of gang association – particularly the most high-risk and high-vulnerability young women – are regularly in locations that service providers cannot reach into. To get empirical knowledge of those spaces, participatory approaches are key to get an accurate understanding of young women’s lives and therefore deliver better services.

Abianda has found that by tipping the balance of power to young women, and using a participatory approach, young women are much more likely to engage and share their expertise on the lives of young women. One example of this in action is Abianda’s work with young women engaged in county line activity, mapping out the routes taken and the different adversity (and sometimes excitement) they might face in different contexts, for example on public transport, or in a trap house in Essex.

We continue to learn lessons about embedding participation as a model of practice within an organisation. I am a youth worker, so I suppose it’s in my blood! Since founding the organisation I have been able to ensure that that these would be the principles worked to: Abianda elicits the views of young women in every engagement, from intimate one-to-one discussions to having a Young Women’s Business Advisory Group that advises at a governance level. It can be challenging to work to those principles, but we continually ask how are we being in service to young women, and are we being loyal to our principles?

Longer-standing organisations may encounter challenges when seeking to embed participation as a model of practice, particularly when working with young people affected by sexual violence. I would recommend prioritising these actions:

  • Really understand what participatory and a contextual approach really means, from a theoretical perspective and beyond tokenism, drawing on the work of Dr Carlene Firmin, MBE and Dr Camille Warrington at the University of Bedfordshire.
  • Have targets set at board and executive level to ensure participatory principles are embedded within the organisation. Senior leaders should be accountable for thinking about how services are fit for purpose based on the different contexts that young people move between.
  • Make decisions at senior levels to commit resources and a good deal of time to deeply embed these principles. Organisations should be prepared to allow for slow growth to facilitate participation of young people.
  • Be clear about how young people’s voices and views will influence decision making and play out in each area of the organisation. Organisations should explore when that will not be possible, and how that will be explained to young people so that they do not feel let down by services

Our safeguarding chronologies at Abianda are an example of the way organisations can develop and embed a contextual approach. We work with young women to develop safeguarding logs which explore the context of risks, and build timelines and maps of potential risks. We are now embedding questions about context in our practical tools, supporting young women to expand their critical thinking around relationships or power dynamics into specific contexts. Furthermore, we support young women to consider the context of service provision (as well as peer, community and social contexts), and the risks and power dynamics young women might encounter in accessing services. Moreover, we work to support partners in multi-agency collaborations to think about their decision making and how this might impact on – even increase – the risk to young women accessing those services in the different contexts she moves in. Young women have varying levels of power, agency and choice in the different contexts and social spheres she moves between, where the harm and risk she experiences will largely be out her control.

We have broad experience training professionals across sectors and across the country in participatory and strength-based approaches in responding high-risk and high-vulnerability adolescents. I have co-developed a training programme with Dr Camille Warrington from the University of Bedfordshire on behalf of Research and Practice, looking at strengths and participatory approaches to responding to sexual exploitation. This was delivered to specialist social work teams in Wigan and Rochdale, who then came up with creative adaptations to assessment processes, and creating plans with young people and families that embed participatory and strength-based approaches. For more information about our services and our training and professional development packages, please do get in touch: or


The image used in this blog was taken from Abianda's website.