I joined the Improving Gender Attitudes, Transition, and Education (IGATE) project, as Director, near the end of the GEC 1, in 2016. IGATE was constituted as a consortium of partners, led by World Vision and between 2017 and 2021, the project supported 66,857 girls and young women, and 56,476 boys in nine districts in Zimbabwe
As we designed for the GEC Transition programme, which began in 2017, we were able to build on many of the existing, successful elements of the first phase including the community support networks such as mothers’ groups, male champions and church action groups. These were already changing attitudes. We also built strong partnerships with schools and communities to improve teaching practices, provide more opportunities for girls to build leadership and life skills, and provide more support to girls at risk or affected by issues of early marriage and teenage pregnancies. We aimed to provide scalable, community-based second chance opportunities to girls who dropped out of school or did not proceed in secondary, and we prioritised local capacity that would be responsive to the lives of the girls. The programme took a holistic approach and had many inter-related interventions.
Community-based education (CBE) has proved to be very transformative for some of the most marginalised girls with whom we worked. We continually adapted to meet the aspirations of out-of-school girls and to focus on transition. This led to a broadening of pathways including vocational training and support for informal businesses such as small-scale bakeries, hairdressing and tailoring. We also advocated to get girls back into formal education. Young mothers were particularly successful in starting individual and group enterprises and often reached other young women, providing peer training and social support. Through the work with Ministry of Youth, a cohort of girls received certification for short courses. The networks of facilitators and role models, along with the short course curriculum and certification will remain and benefit future cohorts of out-of-school young people.
Community Learning Circles, another successful project element, filled a gap in reaching marginalised communities during school closures and also continue to play a role in catch-up learning. This approach was developed over years of working on community and school partnerships, developing community educator capacity and providing flexible teaching and learning resources. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education (MOPSE) are now scaling this model, with additional support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The project has made an impact at the systems level in other ways. Working at school, district and national level, we had a leading role in developing the catch-up framework, reviewing non-formal education programmes and creating a short-course approach tailored to marginalised youth. We also developed teaching and learning materials that have been approved for use in all schools and being promoted within MOPSE for use in all schools.
In the last two years, we have all learned of the need for agility in education and the need to support for learning beyond as well as in school, for both in and out-of-school learners. Partnerships and a strong network of stakeholders invested in the learning of girls and boys enabled IGATE to successfully adapt prior, during and after COVID-19, and achieve significant learning gains for girls/learning outcomes.
I am proud of the enduring partnerships for learning across schools and communities that we have built. They are active and inclusive. IGATE deliberately built girls voices, networks and platforms into the partnerships for learning. We know this worked because we saw girls’ leadership accelerated when girls had practical chances to lead. They shared issues affecting them that were not being addressed in other channels. Girls and community members were making more reports of abuse and protection issues. Girls were forming wrap-around support to fight stigma and bullying, and out-of-school girls and young mothers were accessing new opportunities to gain relevant skills to improve their futures. We demonstrated that unless we invest in girls’ voices, they are often missing in key platforms. These platforms are more effective for having meaningful engagement with girls. There is still a lot more to be done in making schools and communities safer for girls, but IGATE helped overcome a key issue of breaking the silence around abuse and the general silence of girls' voices.
Challenges and lessons
Over the lifetime of the project, economic decline in Zimbabwe had a detrimental impact on the lives of girls and their parents, and other community members including teachers and volunteers. Despite these challenges, at the mid-point of the project in 2019, results signaled hopeful progress and strong foundations for success among schools and communities. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, momentum in schools and vocational training was seriously derailed and we had to rely on the strong network of stakeholders and champions we had supported. The teaching quality that had been established by midline was disrupted in the face of school closures. It was difficult to consolidate the teaching and learning approaches after COVID-19 and we believe even more could have been achieved with a more settled period of implementation. Despite this disruption some teachers and learners made significantly more progress by the end of the project.
Another significant challenge was developing a contextualised community-based education model for out-of-school girls, where there were virtually no existing models in Zimbabwe. Girls were initially difficult to identify. There was also a lot of interest from out-of-school boys. We had to balance the inclusion of boys with deliberate targeting of girls and the specific barriers they faced to transition. We learned more about the extent of these barriers through direct contact, with our particular focus on survivors of abuse, including early marriage and unplanned pregnancy. The girls’ stories illuminated the specific risks and issues they face, which helped shape targeted support as well as push back against overly generalised responses in community engagement work.
We also learned some lessons as we trialed, adapted and made more connections. Out-of-school youth had high expectations for vocational skills for income generation that were difficult to offer at scale. Once connections were made with successful institutions, we were able to build and grow a vocational training model focused on solutions for marginalised, out-of-school girls. Had we worked this out earlier, we could have accelerated the training and skills pathways, and created more gender transformative content.
We also discovered that the low levels of literacy and numeracy skills in secondary learners was a greater problem than we had anticipated. Teachers in secondary schools sometimes struggled to meet the needs of these learners and the parents/caregivers of these students had often disengaged from the children’s learning by this point, deferring responsibility to more qualified teaching staff. More co-design specific to secondary schools was needed and while we were beginning to consolidate by the mid-point, there was very little time to develop it further before COVID-19 shut schools down. The lack of learning materials targeting foundational skills was also a big obstacle. Once addressed directly through providing study guides, reading cards and numeracy tools, teachers, community facilitators and peer leaders were enabled to support foundational literacy and numeracy and leadership skills development in multiple settings.
Our project was committed to ensuring a sustainable approach from the beginning, working closely to develop the lasting capacity of stakeholders. However, as we were working in a challenging operational and economic environment, on reflection, we could have paired this with more direct and targeted support to girls from the outset. By the mid-point, we were investing more in peer leaders, role model girls, girl-led platforms and targeted ‘camps’, working together with stakeholders in delivery but assuring interventions that build more immediate capacities directly with girls themselves, especially older girls.
The ‘mission’ of girls’ education is very compelling. The team around me was inspiring and inspired by a passion and commitment to girls’ education, even if many came to the challenge with different perspectives and angles. It was important for all to stay connected to this, including getting out to interact with girls and stakeholders as often as possible. With COVID-19 this was a huge challenge, but the commitment held and we found new ways of staying connected via remote strategies. Some of these remote strategies brought stakeholders even closer to each other and also to the programme team. I remember waking up each morning and devouring the WhatsApp threads from dozens of different champions and teachers’ groups to read what progress they were making, challenges faced and especially to see photos of solutions being worked out in real time.
Over my time on the project, I learned how to ask a lot of questions. My team now anticipates the “how do you know?, so what?, now what?” reflection and sense-making questions from me and each other. We shared a commitment that doing nothing is not an option, and this was shared also with champions, schools and ultimately girls.
Changes in teaching and learning take time. I am proud of the ownership we have created and the lives that have been and will continue to be changed. The system in Zimbabwe is fragile but we have influenced change in a number of areas of policy and implementation at the national level. Importantly, there are now teacher and head teachers who have seen the interventions that can work. Likewise with the network of champions and volunteers in communities. The impact of this could be profound and they are inside the system and can inform and motivate others. More importantly still is the cohort of girls who went through the project’s community-based education and into secondary school and work. This has been a transformational journey for them, and they will be role models within their communities for what girls can achieve.
 These included the Open University of the UK, CARE International and SNV as technical partners, CARE in Zimbabwe as local partner along with Emthonjeni Women’s Forum and UDACIZA, an umbrella church body, and World Bicycle Relief who contributed technically and in kind.
Further resources from the IGATE project:
Final reflections: Achievements and lessons learned by the IGATE project
Project infographic: Main results from the endline evaluation
External evaluation: Endline report
Project report: Community-based education study