By Jessie Taylor 



Targeted girl-centric interventions

Adolescence is a vital time for childhood development. Yet this is the time that many girls find themselves most vulnerable. Young women are more at risk of social issues linked to gender equality, including poverty.

But if targeted interventions focus on this age group, girls can be empowered to create change in their communities, lift their families out of poverty and grow the economy. Investing in adolescent girls has to be a priority, both for the girls themselves, as well as for the future of the country.


Critical years for intervention

Adolescence, from age 10 to 19, is a critical period of mental, physical, social and educational development. During this phase, girls develop their values, behaviours and skills. This makes it critical for programmes to intervene during this stage in their lives if they are going to have the most impact.

Yet research has found that between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30%. When their confidence reaches its lowest level, at the age of 14, boys’ confidence is still 27% higher. This lack of confidence can have a long-lasting effect and can make girls less likely to take risks or push themselves beyond their comfort zones.

It’s during adolescence that many girls become vulnerable to gender inequalities. These include gender-based violence, lack of access to secondary education, early or forced marriage and lack of sexual autonomy. This inequality can have various knock-on effects: For instance, adolescent girls are disproportionately affected by HIV, with 75% of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 among girls aged 10 to 19 years. They are also at risk of teenage pregnancy, with around one in five girls falling pregnant during these years.

This age group is also at risk of experiencing violence and abusing drugs and alcohol. Estimates say that one in three adolescent girls have experienced some form of violence, and about half of these children experience violence more than once.

While girls are at risk of dropping out of school, those who are able to stay in classrooms still face challenges. The poor quality of education outcomes means that even though most adolescents go to school, they are not necessarily learning what is required to support their future.

The research shows that the odds are stacked heavily against girls, especially when they live in impoverished conditions or do not have access to quality education. And the Coronavirus pandemic has only served to exacerbate the challenges they face.

Girls, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, face barriers that boys don’t – caused by cultural norms, practices, and biases – and this limits their access to economic and social opportunities as well as healthcare and education. But this has been compounded by the pandemic.

Experts are predicting the effects of the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts, especially on education. Between 2014 and 2016, the Ebola outbreak saw many girls not returning to classrooms following school closures, and similar closures due to Coronavirus outbreaks could have the same effect.

Lockdown regulations have also seen an increased amount of gender-based violence in homes, and reduced economic conditions caused by unemployment could force girls out of schools and into low paying jobs or childcare roles.

This is why lobby groups have urged governments to put women and girls at the centre of their Covid-19 responses. Key to this is investing in the education sector, as skilling girls to work in the rapidly changing technological and digital sectors offers the opportunity for generating income and participating in the formal labour market.

Matshidiso Masire, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s representative for Southern Africa, says: “Covid-19 revealed the extent of gender inequities that continue to exist in the world and has also unleashed a parallel pandemic – gender-based violence. It has brought to the fore the urgency with which these issues must be addressed and showcased how a crisis should not exacerbate the existing crises of gender equality…. Putting women and girls at the centre of the Covid-19 response is crucial to rebuilding from the crisis and creating more productive, inclusive economies.”


Creating far-reaching social and economic impact

Aside from promoting access to human rights, investing in girls can have a significant economic and social impact.

Every girl has the right to go to school, stay safe from violence, access health services, and fully participate in her community. But when girls are empowered, educated and healthy, their family dynamics improve.

Research by UNESCO has found that improving girls’ education was linked to the survival of 2.1 million children under age 5 over a 20-year period, in part because it reduces unwanted pregnancies, as well as infant and mother mortality.

Research has suggested that for every additional year of schooling, a girl’s eventual wages will increase between 12 and 14%. These earnings can be invested into her family or can go towards stimulating the local economy, in turn creating more opportunities for other women.  This means that educated girls are likely to have healthier, better-educated children and earn higher income – two key aspects in breaking the cycle of poverty.

They are also more likely to drive economic transformation. Increasing the number of girls who complete their secondary education by only one per cent, could cause economic growth of around 0.3%, studies have shown. Creating an economy that girls can participate in will become increasingly important, as the continent experiences a sharp increase in the youth population over the next few decades.  The population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050, and around two-thirds of the continent’s population is under 25 – with the economic gains to be made by including girls, girl empowerment could help the region transition to faster development.

In addition, ensuring girls receive 12 years of education can help to combat climate change. Education tackles the underlying drivers of climate change while reducing adolescent girls’ vulnerability to its effects. In terms of climate change, studies estimate that family planning and girls’ education could potentially save around 85 gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050.

It’s clear that investing in girls’ education and empowerment must be a priority for any nation working towards economic growth and social development.


Beyond the classroom

Research has found that empowering girls requires more than just academic education. Equipping girls with the necessary preparation to succeed in life requires teaching them soft skills beyond their formal education.

In addition to academic knowledge like basic literacy and mathematics skills, young people need to learn life skills. These include attitudes and beliefs that allow girls to adapt function and thrive in society, such as critical thinking, communication, negotiation, and leadership. Life skills translate into behaviours for coping with, navigating, or transforming life’s challenges.

While the formal education sector delivers the basic skills girls need to navigate society, the non-formal sector has emerged as an important space for developing the life skills girls need in overcoming barriers such as gender discrimination and poverty.

Targeted interventions at critical periods during childhood can have numerous benefits. Multiple studies have made a compelling argument for empowering girls through education and the teaching of life skills, showing that this not only reduces gender inequality and poverty but can also make communities safer and offer opportunities for broader economic growth.


Working to create a new future: Five organisations investing in girls

Empowering girls requires a whole of society approach. While the government has a role to play in providing basic education and guaranteeing basic rights, civil society can intervene in providing girls with life skills that can empower them to change their futures.

The following five South African organisations are working to uplift girls through empowerment projects on home soil.


Afrika Tikkun

Afrika Tikkun aims to create a sustainable future by equipping disadvantaged children to become productive citizens. With a unique model, the organisation prioritises the sustenance, education, and social development of more than 20 000 children. The intervention spans the whole of the children’s early years – from infancy through young adulthood, and into gainful employment.

The organisation acknowledges that many children face challenges and disadvantages beyond their control. These may include lack of access to basics such as having parents, food, shelter, and healthcare. When these necessities are removed, children find themselves forced to focus on daily survival and are often pulled away from education and social advantages.

Afrika Tikkun’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty, providing these children with hope, capability, and promise, in the form of education, life skills and confidence.


Project Girls 4 Girls South Africa

Girls 4 Girls was born in 2017 when a group of Harvard graduate students from across the globe recognized that women in every part of the world are held back from taking up public leadership roles. The programme launched in South Africa in 2019. The organisation works to equip girls with the courage, vision, and skills needed to take on public leadership roles.

While young women can vote and run for a public office in almost all countries, they are significantly underrepresented in legislative bodies around the world. In fact, there are fewer than 20 women heads of state or government.

Girls 4 Girls offers a platform for key leaders to bring their insights to a global mentoring network, in turn empowering young women to play a greater role in public service. The organisation believes that girls have the power to change the world – but this will only be realised if they see women role models in leadership roles.

Women in leadership have been found to have a multiplying effect – they aspire other women and girls to step into leadership roles. This is the reason why female leadership and mentorship, along with education and training, form the basis of Girls 4 Girls’ work.


DreamGirls Academy

DreamGirls Academy, established in Johannesburg in 2011, aims to empower teenage girls through mentorship. The organisation was created by a group of young black female professionals determined to build a sisterhood and leave a legacy through positively impacting the lives of young women.

The DreamGirls Academy provides a structured mentorship and empowerment programme, based on encouraging girls to educate themselves, plan for the future, fulfil their potential, and become successful well-rounded change-makers. They also assist with access to education, professional and personal development information and opportunities. The organisation aims to equip and empower girls to become economically active and positive contributing members of society

The first mentorship programme started in 2012 at a school in Yeoville, Johannesburg, with only 30 girls participating. Since then, more than 750 teenage girls in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Welkom and Polokwane have been empowered through the mentorship programme.


Boxgirls Leadership Education

The girl’s afterschool leadership education programme works in primary schools in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to ensure girls are empowered and able to create a safer environment for themselves and their families.

Boxgirls Leadership Education believes that if girls have the skills and the support to develop their sense of self, they will take steps to protect themselves and work for a safer community. The programme works through girls to influence their peer groups and broader communities, believing that the girls will act as multipliers against gender-based violence.

The programme is run by female peer-facilitators, who mentor groups of 30 Grade 5 girls twice a week at their schools. They teach the girls de-escalation strategies, personal safety, understanding of their rights, communication skills, life skills and good learning habits over half of the school year. The facilitators are chosen from the community and trained through the programme.

The programme also includes homework support and exam preparation.


Brave Rock Girls

This organisation was founded in 2011 by a group of girls looking to make their suburb of Manenberg, Cape Town, notorious for gang violence, safer. It has since grown into a multi-faceted project that encourages girls to stay in school and become economically independent healthy women, living risk-free lives.

The organisation offers various initiatives, including adventures and networking. It takes girls between the ages of 14-18 on trips to meet their sisters across the continent, training them as youth reporters and photographers to advocate for solutions to challenges faced by adolescent girls.

The unconventional approach looks to train girls from urban and rural areas to become advocates for themselves, then teaching them to advocate for others.

Through BRAVE Rock Girl’s initiatives, girls gain the self-confidence and skills needed to become agents of social change. The group also engages boys and men in their programming to create a safer South Africa as safety is everyone’s responsibility.



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