Lessons, reflections and challenges on supporting marginalised girls in Pakistan

31 January 2024 by Zara Syed, Women Protection Empowerment Manager, International Rescue Committee – Pakistan

From the start of the project, I believed it would bring many advantages to girls living in hard-to-reach areas. It would provide them with a safe and protected environment to receive an education. I thought this approach, which focuses on treating boys and girls equally and including everyone, would be particularly beneficial for teenage girls. I also imagined that this comprehensive and integrated approach would have a positive impact on adolescent girls in a broader sense.

My main aim was that the ‘Girl Learn’ cohort would thrive in their Accelerated Learning Programme and transition seamlessly into the mainstream educational system. With this achievement, I hoped to install a sense of ambition in other girls, motivating them to enrol in similar programmes or mainstream education. I envisioned that the accomplished girls would act as role models for their siblings and peers, inspiring them to pursue education and freeing them poverty.

Through the Girl Shine programme, my goal was to give the girls skills and self-assurance to help them manage their lives, making informed decisions and improving their general well-being. The programme involved lessons on health, financial literacy and leadership, among others.

The project's implementation was significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as it disrupted the girls’ education and restricted movement. In addition, safety and security concerns in Baluchistan have been an ongoing issue. The team has had to take measures to ensure the safety and security of the girls and staff, particularly in areas that are prone to conflict. Mobilising the community for girls' education has been a considerable hurdle.

Cultural norms in some areas have made it difficult to garner support for girls' education, and the team has had to work hard to build relationships and trust with the community. That said, having assumed initially that the community would be a significant obstacle to the project's success, we were surprised to find that with our efforts, the community not only began to support our initiative but also actively helped us in identifying girls, mentors, facilitators, and their own spaces for production centres. This support from the community was a significant factor in the project's success and played a crucial role in achieving the project's goals.

We were also surprised by the positive impact that vocational training had on the girls. Providing the girls with vocational skills not only improved their economic prospects but also gave them a sense of empowerment and confidence. This unexpected result showed us the importance of providing a holistic education that includes practical skills that can help girls secure a sustainable livelihood.

The success of a project depends largely on its sustainability aspect, and each activity can leave a lasting impact on the beneficiaries. One notable success was our Girls’ Club initiative. This initiative not only helped students reconnect with each other but also empowered them to become leaders and create a sense of accountability. Even after the project concluded, the Girls’ Club continued to thrive, with members mentoring new students and passing on their knowledge and skills. Many groups even launched livelihood projects, pooling resources to purchase equipment like sewing machines to generate income.

The teacher training component was also highly successful. Previously untrained teachers and human resources personnel received training and certification, providing them with opportunities for personal and professional growth. The training also connected them with the Non-Formal Education (NFE) community, further expanding their knowledge and skills. These successes demonstrate the importance of creating sustainable programmes that can continue to benefit the community even after the project has ended.

In terms of what we might have done differently, while the radio programmes were helpful in providing distance learning opportunities, the lack of a dedicated mentor or teacher to guide the learners through the learning process was a significant drawback. Without a teacher or mentor to provide support and answer questions, the learning experience may have been less effective for some students. Providing guidance and support through a mentor or teacher could have greatly improved the learning process and outcomes for the learners.

We took an inclusive approach to planning which allowed us to leverage the expertise of all partners and create a strong network of support for the project. The partnership played a critical role in the success of the project, as it enabled us to combine resources, share knowledge and expertise, and make a sustainable impact on the community. However, at certain points during the project, we faced some minor delays due to capacity constraints within the internal system of the consortium partners. Despite these challenges, we were able to work collaboratively to overcome them and continue to deliver on the project's goals.

Participating in a large funding programme also brought significant advantages, particularly in terms of establishing strong connections and building trust with the community. This was crucial in gaining easy entry and access to the community for project interventions, as it facilitated the inclusion of a large group of people and enabled access to other remaining areas and districts. Additionally, being part of a larger funding programme allowed for the sharing of knowledge and expertise with other projects, providing opportunities for collaboration and learning. It also provided access to a network of experts, including the donor and Fund Manager, who could offer support and guidance on project implementation and sustainability. Finally, being part of a larger funding programme provided the project with increased visibility and recognition, which helped to attract additional resources and partnerships for future initiatives.

If I were to offer advice to other implementers, I would say that it is essential to have a realistic timeline that allows for unforeseen challenges such as natural disasters, political instability, and other factors that may affect project implementation. Additionally, it is essential to prioritise community engagement from the outset and involve them in the planning and implementation process to ensure sustainability and long-term impact. Furthermore, flexibility and adaptability are key, as unexpected challenges may arise, and the project may need to be adjusted accordingly. Finally, regular monitoring and evaluation should be conducted to assess the project's effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to ensure the desired outcomes are achieved.

From my perspective, the most remarkable accomplishment of the project was the positive impact it had on girls' lives. The Girls Shine programme played a crucial role in empowering girls to become leaders and make critical decisions about their future. The content was tailored to meet their specific needs, and it instilled a sense of confidence and self-reliance in them. It was evident that the girls' attitudes and behaviours had changed, and they were now more aware of their rights and how to access essential services. It was heartening to see that the girls were not only learning but also taking action, such as standing up against child marriages and advocating for themselves and others. Overall, I am proud of the project's lasting impact on the community and the lives of the girls it served.

In my opinion, the project's most valuable legacy is the successful transition of students from informal learning to formal education. This is accompanied by the development of people such as mentors, facilitators and instructors who can guide and support learners through their educational journey. Additionally, the project has reinforced existing structures and systems for non-formal education and child protection, ensuring that these efforts continue to have a lasting impact beyond the project's lifespan.

Through my involvement in the project, I have acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience that has enriched my personal and professional life. Collaborating with a consortium partnership has expanded my horizons and enabled me to navigate the intricacies of the community context and cultural norms. I have honed my ability to approach every aspect of the project through a gender, equity, social inclusion (GESI) lens, which has enhanced my understanding of the multifaceted nature of development work. Moreover, my involvement in designing and implementing the Girls Shine programme and its content has been a transformative experience that has enabled me to cultivate my skills in developing and delivering effective training programs. My interactions with different stakeholders, including government officials, community leaders and project beneficiaries, have enriched my ability to communicate persuasively and forge meaningful partnerships. Overall, this project has been a catalyst for my personal and professional growth, and I feel honoured to have been a part of such a meaningful endeavour.

Finally, it is with great sincerity that I express my deep affinity for Baluchistan, and the immense admiration I hold for the programme implemented in this arduous region. The high rate of female dropout in both mainstream and non-formal education systems underscores the pivotal significance of such interventions, particularly in hard-to-reach regions. As a member of a tribal and cultural family myself, I can attest to the challenges that young girls face in attaining education and empowerment, which makes the programme's achievements all the more commendable. Thus, I wholeheartedly endorse the implementation of such long-term programmes in Baluchistan, which will enable girls to escape the risk of exploitation, abuse and child marriages, and instead lead fulfilling lives.