Giving adolescent girls new knowledge and skills to improve their confidence, further their aspirations and empower them economically appears – in principle – to be a worthwhile activity.
Girls’ clubs and life skills programmes, targeting adolescents both in school and outside the formal education system, aim to achieve these goals and more.
Growing global attention on adolescent girls’ wellbeing and empowerment is driving greater investment in such programmes, but do we really know if they are working or not?
To answer this question, the GAGE programme conducted a rigorous analysis of 44 different community and school-based girls’ clubs or school life skills classes with a gender equality focus.
Our research shows that the vast majority of programmes have led to clear changes in different areas of girls’ empowerment, including:
- Attitudes to gender equality and discriminatory practices
Almost three-quarters of programmes led to changes in attitudes to gender equality, while more than half helped reduce gender discriminatory practices, such as child marriage, or severe limits on girls’ movements. Successes in reducing child marriage rates were usually due to greater engagement with parents, and other family members, alongside empowering girls to speak out.
‘I learned from BALIKA that I can say “no” to a marriage proposal. I learned that if a marriage proposal comes and I am too young to marry, I am able to express my opinion to convince my parents’. (Girls club participant, Bangladesh)
- Self-esteem and self-confidence
Nearly half the programmes we examined helped girls increase their confidence to speak out among peers, family or in the community. This was usually through activities to boost communications skills, paired with gender and rights education which allowed girls to discover their self-worth.
‘I was shy to speak in public before AGE. I was shivering in front of people but when I saw my friends facilitating in AGE, I also got courage that I can do it too’. (Participant in CHATS girls’ club, Malawi)
- Knowledge and education
Clubs led to some impressive increases in knowledge, particularly of sexual and reproductive health and girls’ legal rights. For example, in one programme, the proportion of girls who understood puberty and menstruation rose by over 20 percentage points. A quarter of programmes helped increase school enrolment and achievement and reduce drop-out. These were either larger education improvement initiatives that included extra-curricular clubs, or community-based programmes offering catch-up education to girls who’d missed out, or financial incentives to offset schooling costs.
- Economic wellbeing for older adolescents
Around half the community-based clubs offered older adolescents vocational training, financial literacy teaching, or support for savings. Training was considered helpful for enhancing livelihoods, and respect for girls within their families and communities, although some participants reported that the skills taught were mismatched with local demand.
‘…I will not go back to the life I was living because I am no longer ignorant. I learned to save money and I managed to buy livestock’. (Girls club participant, Rwanda)
- Civic and community action
Six programmes reported increased community-level action, ranging from participants negotiating with elected officials to improve local services, reporting child abuse and planned child marriages to the authorities, to taking part in village councils. One particularly striking finding was that younger adolescents (10-14) were just as willing to get involved in civic action of this kind as their older peers.
Overall, existing evidence suggests that the more effective programmes meet more regularly, involve outreach in the community and generally have a strong focus on promoting gender equality. Other contributing factors include providing regular refresher training to club facilitators, integrating games and other fun learning methods, and allowing time for girls to relax and socialise.
Importantly, our review shows that while girls’ clubs and life skills programmes are generally very good at changing young people’s attitudes, and boosting their self-confidence, their potential for wider change in girls’ lives is limited unless they also involve families and community members.
‘My mother trusts me and she knows who I am and she encourages me to go to meetings and trainings. She says that I am going to become someone in life and I know that I am going to be a big enterprise manager’. (Girls club participant, Honduras)
Our research shows the need for further analysis of the sustainability and long-term effects of these initiatives. A recent UK study shows that Scouts or Guides participants have better mental health in older age but we do not know whether this applies in low or middle income countries, or what aspects of programmes girls find most beneficial over the long-term.
Overall, girls’ club participation has a positive effect. Though some programmes only achieved small changes, others led to striking increases in knowledge, self-confidence, and a few even led to girls lobbying local officials to tackle community-level problems.
Enabling more of these programmes to achieve positive changes requires long-term funding to embed them in communities – many were small, experimental programmes that lasted for a few years and reached fewer than 20,000 girls. If scaled up, our review suggests they have the potential to make lasting changes to a generation of disadvantaged girls.
Read how the GAGE programme will use this girls’ clubs and life skills programmes review to inform and shape its research agenda