Girls lead the way with GirlEngage

By Allison McCrave
November 16, 2021

“The project is for us, by us.”

That’s how Persistency describes The Graduation Project, a program in Zimbabwe supporting the construction of girl-friendly dormitories for students who live far away from school.

And that’s the heart of our GirlEngage approach — working with, and for, girls to make change happen.

With GirlEngage, girls like Persistency become the drivers of the change they want and need in their lives.

Secondary school student washes her hands outdoors in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe
Persistency uses one of her school’s new boreholes to wash her hands.

“In all the meetings that they are calling us to attend, they are putting us at the center, from designing, planning, monitoring and implementation,” Persistency explains. “What is left is evaluation, which we will do when construction is completed.”

When GirlEngage first launched in 2019, we had no idea a global pandemic would soon turn the world upside down. COVID-19 has intensified the stark inequalities that already existed, but it’s also forced everyone to reevaluate the status quo.

Necessary and long overdue conversations about the future of foreign aid are happening more frequently — discussions about the importance of working with communities to determine solutions, rather than arriving with predetermined assumptions, and the need to recognize that while intentions may be good, impact matters most.

Fortunately, collaborating closely with partners at the local, national and global levels has always been a central component of Plan’s work. Through our sponsorship program, sponsors have supported community-led and self-sustaining projects in their sponsored child’s country for years. That human-centered, collaborative approach, combined with the unwavering support of our donors, made it possible for us to pivot and adapt our programs throughout this pandemic.

Secondary school students study at a table in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe
Two participants of The Graduation Project study together outside of their school.

GirlEngage was a natural and essential next step to our development approach, which is rooted in the knowledge that sustainable change is only possible with local ownership. Asking for input from community stakeholders, like teachers, parents and local government leaders, is important, but it isn’t enough. With GirlEngage, we’re able to combine our expertise with the most important voice of all: the girls themselves.

“Besides being at the center, they are leading the project,” said Artmore Muguse, Research and Learning Coordinator for Plan International Zimbabwe.

For instance, the girls identified the need for a water recycling system, which will provide their schools with a consistent source of water. So, in close collaboration with Purdue University, Plan co-developed a curriculum to teach the girls about engineering. That way, the construction of the water system will be completed through a girl-led design process.

Girls were provided with tablets installed with the course learning platform, and two teachers were trained by the Purdue team on the course content. Continuous support is provided to the teachers via weekly Zoom meetings and a WhatsApp group. This initiative has been an exciting experience for the girls, a majority of whom had never previously used smart phones or tablets.

High school students wearing masks in their classroom
From design to implementation, girls in Zimbabwe are leading the way.

“This type of innovation has never happened in our community before,” says Maria, another program participant.

Plan’s long-term presence in communities provides the unique opportunity to measure change over time. We’re committed to learning what works and building on that foundation. But it’s not up to us to determine whether a program was a success — the only ones who can really do that are the girls themselves.

With GirlEngage, girls are actively involved in every step of the process, ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to own their futures. By engaging girls as co-designers, we’re creating resilient solutions that reflect their priorities. We’re able to target their most urgent needs, while addressing the root causes of their challenges.

“Anything for us without us, is against us,” Maria says. “Our voice must be heard.”