Convening and Engaging online: Reflections from the VNSC 2020

On the 17th of December 2020, the Students And Youth Working on reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) organisation, convened the 2020 Virtual National Students Conference (VNSC).  This was the 11th edition of the conference and transitioning it to virtual platforms was part of the organisation’s response to changes and challenges emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The VNSC ran under the theme ‘Safeguarding Adolescents and Youth SRH Rights in the Era of Emergencies’, the two days conference was fully subscribed.

The conference was convened at a time where there were rising concerns over the prioritisation of sexual and reproductive health. Further, containment measures affected all platforms of engagement which were often based on people physically congregating.

While the VNSC was in response to the emergency, it also provided into a future envisaged by SAYWHAT where engagements are not constrained by time and space. A total of 588 delegates registered directly to the conference invitations. This represents over 400 percent increase from the 150 delegates who traditionally attended the physical conferences. In addition, the VNSC further expanded access through Facebook Live and others directly joined through ZOOM without registering.

Without any travel, the VNSC brought together students from over 40 colleges in Zimbabwe, youth representatives from the region and the world at large, and other stakeholders, the conversation on the effect of the emergencies on the SRH freedoms for young people took place through various online meeting platforms.

 The first day of the conference was headlined by the Web for life network and Mugota/Ixhiba symposium, both themed ‘Liberating Cyber Spaces for the Young Women’ and ‘Safeguarding Adolescents and Youth SRH Rights in the Era of Emergencies’ respectively. The Web for Life symposium discussed the need to promote healthy and meaningful young women participation in virtual spaces and contribute to the SRHR discourse free of fear and intimidation.

Overall, the VNSC was a huge success and provided a peak into the future of convening even without COVID-19 and restrictions. There is potential to expand access to convening spaces for students and young people. There is potential to remove to access for students and youth. Whereas access to physical conferences was restricted to those representing institutions, the virtual conference allowed access to a broad range of students and there is potential to enrich deliberations.

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