Last spring, Plan International USA (Plan), debuted a new approach called GirlEngage.
GirlEngage amplifies the voices of vulnerable and marginalized girls by including them in all stages of the project cycle, from setting goals to program evaluation. By engaging girls and young women as partners and co-designers, we co-create resilient solutions that reflect their priorities, needs and vision. The best way to identify the challenges that girls and young women face on a daily basis and define their vision of success is to ask the experts, girls themselves.
Plan put the approach into action for an upcoming project in Zimbabwe, which is aimed at helping girls successfully complete secondary school. To understand the context, Plan conducted a thorough desk review of the situation context, consulted with our country office and spoke with local stakeholders, carefully documenting assumptions along the way. Then, we engaged a group of girls at the target school. What happens when you directly engage girls in project design? First, it is fun! The girls, ages 13-17, brought a lot of energy to the consultation and were willing to speak freely about challenges in their lives. Our time with the girls was successful partly because the activities were designed with adolescent girls in mind, meaning the sessions were engaging while providing a safe space for girls to discuss their aspirations, challenges and goals without fear of judgment. Second, they challenged assumptions held by the adults in their lives (including the school director, district school inspector, local health workers and Plan staff).
Assumption One (from Plan staff): Distance and insecurity associated with transportation to and from school is a key determinant of drop outs. Bikes could be a solution.
False. While distance presented key safety and security challenges for the girls, it is not the only or main barrier preventing them from succeeding in school. Rather, many girls “bush board” in the back of storefronts or other spaces not intended for lodging, much less for unaccompanied school girls. In some cases, 10 or more girls were crowded into a small room. Bush boarding presents a large number of additional safety and security concerns, as well as increases vulnerability to sexual exploitation. It was noted that bikes could not be secured and would be stolen or taken away by brothers or male family members and friends.
Assumption Two (from Plan staff): Girls are an important support system to each other.
False. While the girls want to be supportive, they don’t want to burden each other with the challenges they are facing. The girls revealed they live with a high level of stress in their everyday lives. They know their peers do as well and do not want to burden their friends. In speaking about their future vision, the girls voiced their interest in providing support to peers facing challenges.
Assumption Three (from Plan staff and local stakeholders): Teachers are trained to support the unique learning and psychosocial needs of adolescent girls.
False. The girls consulted did not feel adequately supported or encouraged by teachers, regardless of the teachers’ gender. The girls felt shamed and discouraged from voicing their needs or challenges, even for basic requests such as menstrual hygiene management information in the school context.
Assumption Four (from local stakeholders): Technology is a priority for the classroom.
False. The girls did not mention technology as a key to success, but rather focused on emotional support and understanding as priorities.
Assumption Five (from local stakeholders): Girls are idle after school hours, which often leads to “promiscuity” and drug use.
False. The girls described their after-school hours as very busy with chores, finding places to board for the night, securing food and locating water for washing or cleaning. Their time is heavily limited in daylight hours for these important tasks. The girls face serious economic and food insecurities, which makes them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Additionally, time spent providing for their basic needs limited their ability to devote time to their studies.
So, what now?
Overall, the girls provided a number of insights that will be important as program design continues. They want to feel safe and protected. They feel stressed and vulnerable and lack privacy. Yet, they also have a strong desire to succeed academically and professionally. They want to be able to help other girls and become role models and leaders in their communities.
With guidance from all of the stakeholders, the project will work to keep girls in school and progressing through the next grade level until they complete secondary school. Some of the key activities to achieve this goal are to support girls’ social and emotional learning so they develop confidence, self-esteem and agency to pursue their goals. The project will also support the construction of a safe, supportive physical and social environment, including gender-responsive pedagogy training for teachers and a dormitory.
Girls will continue to drive the priorities through project implementation and evaluation. It is clear that the program shape will look different because girls were engaged in the design process. As partners in this process, driven by their priorities, we can’t wait to be continually challenged and led in the right direction!
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