November 30, 2018
At WomenStrong International, we are committed to sharing what works and learning from what doesn’t, so that those who share our mission of eradicating extreme urban poverty through women’s and girls’ empowerment are able to implement better programs. We learn what new information and resources are needed from our Consortium Members in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Haiti who, in turn, learn from the women and girls with whom they work every day in impoverished urban settings. At our June 2016 retreat, our Consortium Members requested WomenStrong’s support to fill a concerning gap in resources. They saw a need for an easy-to-use, comprehensive, and adaptable curriculum for their Girls’ Club programs. WomenStrong’s Consortium Members currently run Girls’ Clubs with over 9,000 girls and Boys’ Clubs reaching nearly 1,000 boys, but they struggled to find simple tools for their busy volunteer Club facilitators that were relevant to their local communities.
Almost two and a half years later, this November I boarded a plane to Africa on a multi-stop tour starting in Kenya and then Ghana, to launch this very Handbook, entitled, Strong Girls Make Strong Women: A Practical Handbook to Creating and Leading a Girls’ Club, which I authored. Having researched over 50 existing curricula from girls’ empowerment experts such as Population Council and Save the Children, I knew that our curriculum was founded in proven activities, which our own Consortium Members vetted and tweaked to be appropriate for their own communities. For example, as I was authoring Chapter 13 on Sports and Nutrition, our Consortium Member Directors altered the food examples I wrote, such as pasta or bread, to use local foods in their own communities, such as cassava and yams. Yet, even as I boarded the plane to meet with local communities where we would launch this vital resource, I was unsure how the Handbook would be received, when actually in the hands of local government, partners, and the facilitators of our Clubs, and whether we would find support to scale the use of the Handbook so that it could reach more girls and boys.
From my very first day in Kisumu, I was pleasantly surprised by the interest in the Handbook exhibited by a vast range of stakeholders. The Kisumu Micro and Small Enterprises Department, which trains and funds youth and women entrepreneurs, saw how the Handbook could be valuable in preparing young women and men to thrive economically as adults by teaching them about financial literacy and self-esteem. Also, our Consortium Member Alice Visionary Foundation Project’s (AVFP) Teens’ Club Peer Mentors told me that having such a comprehensive resource from which to teach their fellow high school girls gives them greater confidence in their ability to lead their Teens’ Club meetings powerfully.
During my second week on this Launch trip in Kumasi and Accra, Ghana, I was surprised to be met by the same enthusiasm from varied government offices, other local NGOs and development agencies, and enthusiastic citizens eager to give back to their country. But why would all these different parties be interested in a 200-page book about Girls’ Clubs? Our Handbook consists of both a Start-Up Guide for how to run your own Boys’ or Girls’ Club and a 16-chapter curriculum covering topics including goal-setting, sexual and reproductive health, human rights, and financial literacy. Our list of topics was created by our four Consortium Members with Girls’ and Boys’ Club programs, who advocated to include what their own girls and boys most need to know. In each of my meetings, these organizations and individuals saw how different elements of the curriculum would support young people in their holistic development and equip them with the protective assets—the skills and resources they need to know to protect themselves, in order to thrive as strong women and men. They understood the integrated nature of those topics and skills needed to empower young people.
In addition to individual meetings with key stakeholders, we held launch events in both Kenya and Ghana, and a training for facilitators and other users of the Handbook. At both launches, our Consortium Members, AVFP in Kenya and Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) in Ghana, as well as other guests of honor, such as Ministry of Education officials and traditional community leaders, talked about the challenges girls in their community face. I was surprised to learn that both countries focused on teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence, and poverty.
At Adwumakaase-Kese Junior High School outside of Kumasi, a facilitator said that initially, he was not enthusiastic about WHW’s Clubs because he has seen many NGOs come and go through his schools, making little impact. “But this was not the case with Women’s Health to Wealth,” he said. “This Club has helped girls avoid teen pregnancy. We used to have three girls per year get pregnant at our school, but since WHW’s Clubs began, we’ve had zero pregnant girls in our school!” Other facilitators and head teachers, in both Kenya and Ghana, reported similar results at their schools, as well as an increase in the retention rates and increased attendance of female students, enhanced confidence of their female students, and improved behavior and attitude of all Club members.
The most touching stories were, of course, from the boys and girls in these Clubs. At the Kisumu launch event, Purity, a former AVFP Girls’ Club member and now a Teens’ Club Peer Mentor, bravely told the audience about her experience with her first menstruation. AVFP’s Clubs taught girls (and boys) about the menstrual cycle and how to manage their cycle using sanitary pads. Prior to this lesson, many girls simply stayed home when on their period, or would resort to using unhygienic materials like old rags or leaves. They even had a peer-led demonstration on how to use pads that Boys’ Club members said had helped them teach their own sisters how to manage their cycles. Purity said that due to this education from her Girls’ Club, she understood what was happening when she discovered blood in her underwear after school one day. Because she and her fellow Club members had discussed this topic thoroughly, she was not afraid to march up to her mother and tell her that she had gotten her period. Her mother then gave her a pad, expecting that she would have to show her daughter how to use it. Purity proudly told her mother that she already knew how, because of AVFP! Not only did Purity learn the skill of managing her menstrual cycle, she was empowered and confident in dealing with this aspect of puberty.
At our two trainings, we dug deeper into the content of our Strong Girls Handbook. After a brief orientation on its structure, Facilitators shared with each other how easy the Handbook was to use. They were impressed, they said, by how simply each lesson was laid out, which makes a huge difference for the busy Facilitator who runs the Club in her spare time. They also commented on the child-centered nature of the lessons. “These activities really break down the wall between the teacher and the students,” one Kisumu Facilitator declared. A woman I met in Accra began using the Handbook in the Girls’ Club she had started in her community school. Upon completing the first lesson with her girls about creating a Girls’ Club constitution and electing girl leaders, the girls began to cry, because they had never been given an opportunity to take ownership of anything in the classroom and to be leaders for themselves and their peers. This reminded me that Girls’ Clubs are not only about educating girls with the vital knowledge and skills they need to develop, but perhaps even more importantly, the Clubs motivate and empower the girls and boys to become confident leaders who believe they can make a difference in their families and communities.
As the primary author of this Handbook, experiencing these stories and feedback filled me with a deep sense of accomplishment and pride. By no means is our work done, but to see WomenStrong’s Handbook physically in the hands of the user was enormously rewarding. This Handbook has already proven to be a valuable resource to deliver vital skills and knowledge to young people. As Alice Visionary Foundation Project Executive Director Beldina Opiyo-Omolo put it, “Through the various topics such as communication, human rights, [and] sexual reproductive health, we are going to get the kids to change their behaviors and attitudes at a very young age, so that they do not repeat cycles of violence or violate any form of human rights.”
We are thrilled to soon be able to share our Strong Girls Make Strong Women Handbook, free of charge and easily downloadable from our website, with the global community in early 2019.