Final reflections on the STEM project

10 August 2021 by Nabin Lamichhane, Programme Manager, Mercy Corps

The Supporting the Education of Marginalised Girls in Kailali (STEM) project, led by Mercy Corps, aimed to empower Nepali girls to safely access education and economic activities. It also aimed to increase attendance and create positive community attitudes towards girls’ education. The first phase of the project began in 2014 and the second phase in 2017. The project completed its activities in March 2021.

From the start of our activities in 2014, the STEM project needed to address a number of challenges faced by girls, families, schools and the wider community, including the impact of natural disasters and, latterly, the COVID-19 pandemic. These also included tackling issues around harmful gender and social norms that prevented girls from accessing school and livelihood opportunities.

The project’s main aim was to support girls to complete secondary education and transition to employment. We knew this would take time, particularly when working with girls and young women who were out of school. We also focused on the development of teachers’ skills and capacity, and encouraged schools to work on the safeguarding of children. In addition, we worked hard to engage with local government, disseminating information and learning to advocate for change within local and provincial government bodies.

Opening up secondary education and widening access for girls was the main priority. Addressing the lack of energy was also important, as electricity was scarce in many of the local communities that were being supported. In the longer term, we aimed to embed the value of girls’ education, and the structures and activities that promoted greater access, within the community so that there was long-term local ownership

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was engaging boys and working to mitigate any backlash against the support the girls were receiving. The girls need them to be supportive and understand the value of girls’ education. It is important to change the perceptions and attitudes of boys to help create an enabling environment for girls, from which they can also benefit.

It was also important – and sometimes challenging - for us to ensure that teachers were gender inclusive. The teachers with whom we worked at the start of the project were mostly male and had quite traditional, patriarchal perspectives and had not been introduced to girl-friendly teaching methodologies.

Two activities were added to the project’s plan which had not been anticipated at the outset – and which ended up being fundamental to the success of the project’s impact within the schools and communities. The first was feedback on the new teaching and learning processes. This was used to inform both its development and the development of teachers’ approaches and skills. This feedback was sought from the students – both girls and boys - from volunteer and project observers, from teacher’s peers and from the teachers themselves in the form of self-reflection. The second was the introduction of ‘family dialogues’. This was valuable in changing family behaviours and perspectives, particularly in terms of reducing the chore burden for girls allowing them more time for school and additional study.

Some of the most successful aspects of the project included:
The involvement of parents: we saw a huge increase in the number of parents visiting and engaging with the schools. This led to more parental support and encouragement, a decrease in household chores and an increase in girls’ attendance and transition.
The extension of school responsibility: during the project the responsibilities of school staff and teachers moved beyond education in the classroom to a broader approach to access. Schools began following up more proactively on absences and reducing drop out.
The provision of loans: we ran a big campaign to convince the girls and their families to apply for the Girls’ Transition Fund which resulted in huge amount of applications and was replicated by other organisations and is being sustained beyond the lifetime of the project.
Empowering Daughters: we provided training for adolescent girls on protection and self-defence. This approach builds girls' skills and confidence to help them deal with violence. The training has been expanded to other provinces through Sakshyam CHhori campaigning which has been led by STEM graduates.
Education planning processes at the local government level: the project supported local government departments in creating strategic education plans (including collecting and analysing data). Four of six have published and distributed the plans. This was a highly participatory process which can be repeated and has resulted in ownership and lasting impact.
Dissemination of learning/knowledge: learning has been shared with 40 local governments on the aspects of the project that have been successful and why this is the case.

There are a few things that we adapted over the course of the project. For example, the second phase of the project did not include solar-based activities as they were not effective as we had hoped and there had been a move to hydro-electricity in Nepal. We also increased the inclusion of boys in some of our project activities but would have liked to incorporate more boys in them. On reflection we might have looked at channelling more resources into building teacher and school capacity, especially at the primary level.

A number of partnerships were vital to the success of the project. On the whole, local and provincial government bodies were happy and welcoming of our input and support, particularly with planning and the response to COVID-19. Partnerships with the private sector were key in providing loans and training for out-of-school girls. Finally, the newly formed partnerships with the teachers’ associations helped us to expand our influence with teachers on girl-centred approaches.

Being part of the larger GEC programme had a number of benefits. It helped with the development of stronger safeguarding policies and activities and our overall capacity building. The connection with other projects working in Nepal was very strong and valuable. The review processes were helpful in allowing for adaptation to address immediate needs. Finally, it gave us the opportunity to share learning with other implementers but also global organisations and events such as the CIES, Global Partnership for Education, Food Security Network and UNICEF.

If we were to offer advice to other implementers….make sure you have robust tracking and data analysis that can be used quickly. Also, recognise how other stakeholders can help achieve your goals. For us, we recognised early on that investing in parents as well as the girls would help address a number of challenges as they were facing many of the same issues. Partnerships and sharing information with other NGOs can also be helpful.

As we reach completion, we are proud of a number of aspects of the project. We have exceeded our learning targets. Girls are now graduating and inspiring and teaching others. 600 girls are setting up businesses and expanding their reach by employing many more girls. School governance has improved with greater enrolment, participation and transparency. Many schools have also become far more involved in their local communities. Parents are supporting schools much more and the schools are helping the communities beyond simply teaching. This has been particularly apparent during COVID-19 as schools have worked with parents to keep girls safe and learning.

In terms of the project’s legacy, we see the impact of a change in attitudes. Girls – and their parents and guardians – understand what they can do, as opposed to what they can’t. Girls are in leadership positions in teaching, healthcare and journalism. And we believe there has been a strong acknowledgement at various government levels of the value of parental engagement, with concrete plans being developed on how they can play a part.

The project has also been a learning experience for the team. We better understand the importance of evidence and independent evaluation. We have improved our knowledge and processes around gender and protection which we have brought back to our wider organisation. We have also learned a lot about working at the local level and the value of working with a variety of stakeholders. The intensity of the work has been positive overall and achieving a holistic approach involving a range of activities has been satisfying. It has certainly been a challenging project, but it has no doubt built a team with a ‘single spirit’!

As a final reflection, we have the story of one girl which is illustrative of many of the girls we have had the privilege to support. Janaki was in bonded labour. She returned home and was married. She was introduced to the STEM project and was given vocational training. With this training she opened a business in the community, designing and promoting contemporary and traditional dresses of the Tharu ethnic group. This is providing jobs for more than 15 other girls. Janaki is now supporting her brothers who have also been able to come home. She has also joined formal education and is continuing her studies. In this sense our project is not ending – it has only just begun to expand.


Further resources from the STEM project:

Final reflections: Achievements and lessons learned by the STEM project

Short film: The STEM project

Intervention brief: Interventions for out-of-school girls and graduate girls

Intervention brief: Interventions for in-school girls

Intervention brief: Interventions aimed to create a safe environment for girls

External evaluation: Endline report