The Girls’ Access to Education – Girls’ Education Challenge (GATE-GEC) project is a UK Aid-funded initiative that worked across six districts in Sierra Leone supporting marginalised girls and children with disabilities to attend and learn in school. The aim of the project was to improve learning, transition and sustainability outcomes for girls and children with disabilities. The majority of the project’s interventions targeted the ecosystem around girls through capacity building and an effective community engagement model. Community engagement has long been recognised as essential to removing barriers and enabling successful education programming and is widely accepted as best practice. Community engagement leads to locally generated interventions that are relevant and accepted, it creates accountability and creates local ownership which ensures sustainability.1
The project worked in schools and in communities to improve learning outcomes for girls. Project interventions included capacity building of teachers, community engagement and awareness creation campaigns. The community engagement model developed by GATE-GEC, and adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, was critical in supporting girls’ learning, as evidenced in the examples shared below.
Local community networks as champions for women and girls’ education
GATE-GEC successfully implemented a distance-learning model that identified marginalised young women within rural communities and supported these women to train and qualify as teachers. The model was developed by the Open University and implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and Teacher Training Colleges.
Key to the success of this model was the ownership of and support from an extensive community network. Communities were introduced to the model and led on the recruitment and selection process of suitable candidates.2 The women were supported by Teacher Training College lecturers, GATE-GEC project staff, social workers, tutors, mentors, family, friends and other important community figures, such as village leaders. Findings from research conducted by the Open University highlighted how this network of people and supportive engagement generated ‘a culture of collective learning and community development’.3
Through the distance-learning model, the project and communities developed a qualified female teacher workforce and hundreds of female professionals within the education sector - trained in inclusion, safeguarding and psycho-social support. GATE-GEC’s endline evaluation noted the project fostered a positive learning environment through improved attitudes towards marginalised girls and children with disabilities and through the use of positive role models, specifically the female teachers, who in turn are able to support girls’ education.4
As part of the COVID-19 response, GATE-GEC further trained and employed the women as educators, leading Girls’ Clubs in primary schools, working with teachers to facilitate study groups across primary intervention schools and leading a telephone-based model for students who remain at home or may return to home learning should schools re-close.
Empowering communities to make education accessible to children with disabilities
GATE-GEC selected 138 Community-Based Rehabilitation Volunteers (CBRVs) from local communities and provided training on child protection and safeguarding, gender equality and social inclusion community awareness raising and advocacy. These CBRVs conducted monthly community sensitisation sessions on the rights of all children to be educated, and supported girls and children with disabilities in accessing and attending school.
The CBRVs and their engagement with children with disabilities has been critical in changing perceptions of communities towards children with disabilities and their right to education. Children with disabilities have spoken about the impact of CBRVs, motivating them to stay in school, offering support and a sense of belonging - and changing attitudes in the community.
CBRVs were critical community actors in our COVID-19 response. GATE-GEC provided training to CBRVs on psychological first aid and survivor-centred support. The CBRVs were engaged to support community sensitisation on COVID-19 prevention measures and supporting the project’s ‘back-to-school’ campaign, resulting in 99% of GATE-GEC children returning to school.
Community mobilisation to support economic empowerment
The Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) model creates self-managed savings groups that use members' savings to lend to each other. VSLAs are comprised of between 10 and 25 members and offer self-managed savings and other services in remote rural areas. The model has spread to 77 countries with over 20 million active participants worldwide.5 VSLAs have transformed marginalised communities by mobilising local savings, which provide members with a means to cope with emergencies, help to manage household cash-flow, build a capital base and re-build social networks, solidarity and trust.
GATE-GEC supported the establishment of 200 VSLAs (5,000 people) which provided members (76% of which are female) a place to save, small loans, and training on financial education and business skills. At inception of the project, the set-up of VSLAs involved sensitising district and chiefdom level leaders on the benefits of VSLAs to support community economic empowerment, which in turn would help families in supporting their children’s education. These local leaders then supported mobilisation of community members to join VSLAs, and also provided the space for the VSLAs to meet, monitored the groups’ activities, and shared success stories to encourage the growth and replication of groups.
Project data indicates VSLAs have been extremely successful in changing the attitudes and perceptions of families towards keeping their children, specifically girls, in school and investing in their children’s education. In a monitoring survey undertaken with VSLA members, 63% noted they had utilised loans to support their children’s education.
At the onset of COVID-19, VSLA groups were provided cash grants to mitigate physical and resource-based barriers to education. The project’s VSLA leaders were mobilised to engage their VSLA community groups in reflective dialogues. These dialogues focused on girls’ education, gender-based violence, psycho-social support and equal distribution of household labour - converting the groups into community institutions that share the responsibility of girls’ and children with disabilities’ education, safety, protection, health and well-being.
Community engagement within GATE-GEC was an integral component for the girls’ education initiatives and a foundational strength. Endline evaluation findings also attributed positive gains and changes in attitudes, perceptions and practice to continued and increased community engagement.
1. CARE. (n.d.). Working through communities to impact the quality of basic education: A book of experiences.
4. National Foundation for Educational Research, Endline Evaluation, 2021