I joined Plan International in October 2018 to lead the Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education (SAGE) project, which supported 13,460 highly marginalised, out-of-school adolescent girls in 11 districts across Zimbabwe. Our focus was on non-formal education and out-of-school girls. Previously, I had been working on another GEC project in Zimbabwe and this experience was extremely valuable.
In order to deliver our programme commitments, it was essential to build strong working relationships with many stakeholders. This included the Ministry of Education. We needed to make sure we were closely aligned, especially in the delivery of non-formal education, so that our work would be sustainable in the long term. We also worked to ensure that we were coordinating with the FCDO office in Zimbabwe – aligning with their priority areas.
My ‘mission statement’ for our work as a team was ‘Let’s make SAGE spectacular!’ and after a year of hard work and progress, ‘Let’s keep SAGE spectacular!’. Essentially, our ambition was to change the narrative for the out-of-school girls. By offering the support they needed to learn and transition into vocational skills, training and employment, we wanted them to have the skills and confidence to become financially independent and see themselves as valuable contributors to their families and communities. We wanted their communities to see them in this way as well.
By the end of the project, at least70% (3,137 out of 4,482 sampled girls at endline) of the girls had met the targets for functional literacy and numeracy, and were using their new knowledge in their day-to-day lives. They had created pathways for their futures and were already challenging underlying gender norms. Some of the girls had been trained on male-dominated trades such as welding and carpentry and were being employed to fix things in their communities. We linked girls with skilled members of the community to gain these skills, which they are now passing on from girl to girl – or in some cases their children especially supporting their children with schoolwork.
At first, it was not easy to identify and support the girls. Finding out-of-school girls was a challenge in itself as they were sometimes ‘invisible’ in terms of official educational registers. So, we worked with local stakeholders to find and engage these girls.
We were also working in a complex context. Economic and political instability (and massive inflation in 2020) increased operating costs. Climate-related crises, including floods and droughts, affected attendance and the delivery of activities. Community Learning Hubs were impacted and many girls (up to a third in some cases) had to leave school to work and/or look for food. We adapted to this challenge by integrating work with the humanitarian programmes that were also running at this time. For example, we linked food distribution to the Learning Hubs which meant that girls were able to eat – helping them to attend and improving their ability to study. A hungry child cannot learn.
COVID-19 was also a huge factor but actually meant that we accelerated work that was already underway. Specifically, the delivery of distance learning: distance had already been identified as a barrier to education in feedback from the girls. We adapted quickly by developing small community groups (that adhered to social restrictions), door-to-door contact (which was already being used to engage some girls with disabilities and pregnant girls) and phone calls (for contact and learning). Although phone call support was affected by electricity and network connectivity issues, it played a critical role in maintaining contact with learners and providing some wellbeing support during crisis periods. Nonetheless, through a mix of these interventions we were able to keep contact, keep girls learning, meet their preferences and offer flexible hours.
It is vital to understand that the girls are not homogeneous: no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when you are supporting marginalised girls. We developed seven sub-groups of marginalisation to better understand the needs of the girls and how they might best be supported. We translated materials (including safeguarding posters) into local languages and took a GESI approach – ensuring the girls with disabilities received the devices they needed to be able to learn. There was an early assumption that there was adequate capacity within the Ministry of Education structure to provide to provide support to girls with disabilities. However, during the implementation phase, this assumption was challenged. The project, through its partnership with CBM, engaged with Teacher Training Colleges to support the project by building the capacity of SAGE volunteers on how to deliver disability friendly and inclusive teaching pedagogies.
An adaptive management approach is also important. We used an online database with real-time data to inform our adaptations. We also had quarterly learning and reflection sessions where we would work as a group to discuss challenges and come up with solutions together.
Finally, it is essential to put ‘the girl’ at the heart of everything you do. Create opportunities for girls to be heard. Get their input and respond to it. What do they want and need? From these conversations, we were able to develop material that spoke to the girls and genuinely engaged them. We understood more clearly the importance of vocational skills. We also understood when they needed extra support on activities with which they were very unfamiliar such as banking and recruitment.
In terms of the project’s legacy, I believe we have had a wide influence – beyond the education and transition of the girls we have supported. We have influenced activities in schools – both in terms of teaching and learning. We have encouraged financial inclusion: over 900 learners were supported to open bank accounts with the local Zimbabwe Women’s Microfinance Bank (ZWMB) in order to facilitate the processing of flexible loans to grow their enterprises. We are now highly regarded as an organisation – from system to community levels – on non-formal education and catch-up strategies. Other organisations are coming to us for advice and input.
On a personal note, my involvement in this project has helped me develop a number of skills. I have learned the value of adaptive management and changing plans to meet unexpected challenges, or to deliver in a better way.
Delivering a project in difficult contexts can be hard and sometimes depressing. I know that I do not always have ‘the blueprint’ and the answers to challenging circumstances. I have understood that being a good leader is about being open to ideas from others and keeping the team inspired by our overall vision and ultimate objectives to change the lives of the girls we support.
You can read the Final Reflections Summary Report here