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Lessons learned from Plan International’s Girl Power Programme

School girl in a classroom. Photo: Stephan Bachenheimer/GPE

This blog explores Plan International’s experiences in delivering the Girl Power Programme including lessons learnt from Nepal and Sierra Leone.

Gabriella Pinto, Gender Equality Advisor, Plan International UK

Girls’ clubs are an increasingly popular tool to promote adolescent girls’ well-being and empowerment. Yet while girls’ clubs are now commonly implemented by an array of different actors, there is substantial variation in how they are implemented and in how they are combined with other interventions. For those seeking to integrate girls’ clubs into their programming, this piece aims to share some of the lessons learned from Plan International’s experience working with adolescent girls across the Global South.

About Plan International’s Girl Power Programme

One example of Plan International’s girl-centered approach in practice is the Girl Power Programme, implemented in 10 countries from 2011-2015 by the Girl Power Alliance, a coalition of six partner agencies* led by Plan Netherlands. While the package of interventions varied by country, girls’ clubs were a core element in all locations. The following are some of the lessons learned about implementing a successful girls’ programme.

Recognise and respect the different needs of diverse girls

‘Adolescent girls’ are not a homogenous group, and considerations around age, marital status, ability, poverty, etc. will impact significantly on the programme design. For example, while games, songs, and competitions may be effective in attracting and engaging younger girls, the addition of vocational training may be more effective in incentivising the participation of older girls. Clubs that are open to all girls of all ages are often not genuinely accessible to all, and implementers should be mindful of which girls are being excluded, or are self-excluding, from such programmes. The Girl Power experience demonstrated the importance of careful tailoring to engage and retain girls with different support needs.

Secure buy-in from parents and community leaders to mitigate resistance from the outset

Particularly when targeting more marginalised girls (including those in very rural or conservative areas, married adolescents, girls with disabilities, etc.), it is important to work with parents and communities to negotiate issues around curriculum content, club meeting location, and scheduling. In Girl Power programme communities, engaging parents and community leaders in these conversations from the outset helped to allay potential concerns that clubs might, for example, be a corrupting influence and/or take too much time away from domestic responsibilities. Presenting parents and communities with arguments around the benefits of participation not only for the girl herself, but for her family and community, often proved most persuasive.

Adopt a holistic approach, layering in additional components to address both the social and economic barriers to girls’ rights

Learning from Plan International and others in the sector suggests that efforts to build girls’ agency and equip them with life skills are most effective when combined with complementary interventions to support access to education and economic opportunities. In communities where transactional sex is a common coping mechanism, for example, reproductive health and protection from abuse and exploitation are inextricably linked to economic security.

Among the most successful approaches we trialed to improve girls’ economic opportunities were those that not only provided vocational training, but also created a strong, clear pathway for young women to progress from training, to apprenticeship, to employment by establishing links with the local private sector.

Engage boys and young men, while also maintaining girls-only spaces

It is now widely accepted that efforts to empower and support girls must also engage with their male peers. One approach that Plan International has found to be successful is to run parallel single-sex groups for girls and for boys, then to bring the groups together at regular intervals to dialogue and share experiences. This approach maintains the advantages of girls’-only spaces while also creating opportunities for boys and girls to come together to develop mutual understanding. Our Champions of Change programme in Latin America employed this model and saw significant reductions in the acceptability of intimate partner violence among participating young men.

Invest more time and thinking in how to effectively engage at an institutional level

While the Girl Power Programme met (or in many cases exceeded) its targets at the individual and community level, impacts at the institutional level – around, for example, the implementation of girl-friendly policies and the delivery of high-quality public services – could have been stronger.

Where Girl Power partners were successful in institutional advocacy, it was generally where relationships with government ministries had been carefully nurtured over many years. Girl Power partners without similarly strong pre-existing links to government institutions or established alliances with other civil society actors struggled to have an impact within the lifespan of the project. It needs to be recognised that, while institutional change is critical to creating the enabling environment for girls to thrive, this can be difficult to achieve within short-term project cycles.

Our experience has demonstrated that girls’ clubs can be a powerful tool to support and empower adolescent girls – helping to build their social networks, self-esteem, and awareness of their rights and opportunities. However, girls’ clubs are not sufficient, in isolation, to shift deep-rooted gender norms and enable girls to actualise their choices. Girls’ clubs can serve as a useful core intervention, but must be supplemented with wider initiatives to provide girls with access to education and economic opportunities, to work with the men and boys around them, and to engage with institutions to create an enabling environment for change. Donors should invest in long-term funding for integrated, multi-sectoral girls’ programmes and in rigorous research to deliver and capture real results for girls.

*Child Helpline International, Defence for Children International/ECPAT, Free Press Unlimited, International Child Development Initiatives, Women Win, and Plan Netherlands.

This piece is indebted to the work done by Frans van Gerwen, Marije van Lidth de Jeude, Wout Visser, and Dani Bender of Avance Consultancy and the kind support of HelenEvertsz and Jet Bastiani at Plan Netherlands.