Safe-space programmes build girls’ confidence, skills and vision of their future
Safe-space programmes come in all shapes and sizes.
But whether it's a financial literacy group run from a mosque or a
health and leadership programme set up in a youth centre, the aim
remains the same: to inspire girls and equip them with the
information and support they need to achieve their greatest
Here, Janna McDougall from the Nike Foundation
outlines 10 compelling reasons why safe-space programmes for girls
are at the heart of the girl effect…
1. Safe spaces build friendships.
In many places, girls in poverty have only one or two
friends, whereas boys have many more. Many girls are pulled out of
school when they're on the cusp of puberty, cementing their
isolation, and they may not be allowed out of the home except to do
chores such as fetching water and firewood. Many parents prevent
girls from socialising because they see it as unproductive and
risky, and they want to keep their daughters safe and
Safe-space programmes reduce girls' isolation by
creating space for them to build connections to other girls, in a
place where they know they can trust each other. At the Binti
Pamoja programme in Nairobi, Kenya, the most isolated and at-risk
girls from the Kibera slum come together every week in their safe
space. After just a few weeks, girls have built friendships with
the other girls and mentors in their groups, which builds their
confidence and protects them in the slums. It's a lot easier to
harass one girl than five.
2. Safe spaces create trust.
The trust that's needed to form friendships doesn't
come naturally for a lot of girls. When the consequences of girls'
secrets getting out can be as extreme as getting excommunicated
from the family, girls learn that it's dangerous to trust people.
The first few meetings of a safe-space programme are used to build
up trust through games and other shared experiences. Girls can also
create their own ground rules so they can define for themselves
what makes them feel safe and trusted.
In Ethiopia, many girls do not trust other girls,
especially with their secrets. Girls use different strategies to
learn if they can trust other girls, such as feeding them phony or
unimportant information to see if it gets out. Safe-space
programmes can help girls learn to trust other girls by talking
openly and practising what it means to be a good friend.
3. Safe spaces are a time for girls to be
Girls often don't get the chance to be adolescents -
the crucial developmental stage to make mistakes and take risks. If
a girl makes a mistake it reflects on her family honour, so parents
will do everything they can to protect them, their marriage
prospects and the family reputation. Girls are kept at home and not
allowed to spend time with their friends.
In Eritrea and Ethiopia, girls are pulled out of
school as early as the age of 10, to signal to potential suitors
that they're ready for marriage. The Berhane Hewan programme in
Ethiopia is a powerful solution to this. Young adolescent girls
meet in groups, which has helped them to stay in school and delay
marriage until later. It's a living example of how safe-space
programmes make room for girls to have fun, play games, dance, tell
stories or just hang out with friends - all of which encourages
relationships and equips girls to be successful adults.
4. Safe spaces broaden horizons.
Isolation means girls living in poverty have few
opportunities for life experiences. Safe-space programmes open
opportunities for girls to visit places they wouldn't normally go
to, such as banks, health centres and sports fields, and help girls
to imagine career options they don't see every day in their
communities. In safe-space programmes, girls can also learn
information to help them navigate adolescence safely; such as
information about their bodies, the changes they'll experience in
puberty, their sexuality and how to stay healthy. These experiences
enable girls to make plans and decisions about their future, and
create a tangible sense of power.
In the Programa Para o Futuro (PPF) in north-eastern
Brazil, girls earned a small stipend each week. PPF
encouraged girls to open savings accounts so they could save their
money at the bank. By the end of the programme, 100 per cent of the
girls successfully opened accounts. Accomplishing this built the
girls' sense of identity, their plans to save in the future, and
the realisation that they are fully participating citizens in their
5. Safe spaces give girls aspiration.
Many girls don't have people they can look up to who
show them an achievable, better future. When we ask girls who their
role models are, they'll often say people such as Beyoncé, Rihanna
or Jeannette Kagame - people who are far away from their daily
lives. They're also proud that their mothers are their role models.
Or they may have no role models at all.
We want girls to dream big and we also want their
mothers to be positive forces within their lives, but there's a gap
between famous role models and close family members. It's the
achievable aspiration gap: girls have a model of success that only
one in a million girls can reach, and yet often don't have examples
that show them how to take the next step beyond their family's
current situation. Safe spaces create the opportunity for girls to
interact with mentors who provide examples of careers that girls
can aim for - a future that is aspirational, but also realistic and
6. Through safe spaces, girls become more
Safe-space programmes are really effective platforms
for girls to build financial literacy and start saving money. Those
savings can mitigate the issues that might pull her out of school;
for example, she can use the money to pay for her own school fees,
books and uniforms. Savings also mean girls can invest back into
their families and themselves - all of which can make their
community better off. When there are lots of girls doing that, the
impact is huge.
Liberia's Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls
and Young Women (EPAG) project is a good example of girls'
contributions to their families and communities. At the start of
EPAG, the programme implementers gave each girl $5, deposited
directly into a bank account set up in their names. As they watched
the money grow steadily, girls became more confident in their own
money-management and saw the value of banks. They then showed their
families that banks can earn money on an initial investment, proved
to their communities that they were responsible with money and
helped families save more money.
7. Safe spaces give girls a voice.
As girls become more visible, they gain more power.
The Girls Gaining Ground programme in India turned girls into vocal
members of their communities. In one town, the governor had
promised a new lightning grid but hadn't delivered on his promise,
so the girls came together and demanded that he install the
lightning grid, which he then did.
In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, when girls learned
that underage marriage is illegal and harmful in CARE's TESFA
programme, they banded together to stop it. Girls went to community
leaders and demanded an end to marriages of young girls. As of
2012, they had stopped 170 child marriages.
8. Safe spaces help girls avoid risk.
In many safe-space programmes, girls are encouraged
to talk about the major risks in their lives and create maps of
their community: identifying where is safe, with who and at what
times. This helps them to think about how they can avoid risks and
stay safe. That might be walking home from school together, taking
different routes or making sure that if they have to go to a place
where they don't feel safe, they can go at the least risky times or
make sure they're in a large-enough group to ensure that they won't
In the Safe Savings programme in Kenya and Uganda,
girls' safe-space group was central to keeping them safe from
violence. Girls who saved money with a group were half as likely to
experience indecent touching from a man, compared to girls who
saved money without a group.
9. Safe spaces mean girls can avoid trap doors.
Strong connections mean girls can get the support
they need to navigate the emotional and physical challenges of
being a teenager - a place to go if their world falls apart. This
means they're better equipped to avoid or deal with the negative
experiences that threaten to derail them in adolescence: dropping
out of school, getting forced into having sex, becoming pregnant or
getting married too early. When girls live through these
experiences, it can send them on a downward spiral, which makes
poverty worse for everyone.
Safe spaces can help girls sidestep these risks. In
CARE's Ishaka programme for girls in Burundi, after participating
in savings and lending groups, girls reported a 78 per cent
increase in contraceptive use and a 58 per cent reduction in
prostitution. If girls are less likely to become pregnant and
experience forced sex, they have the physical and emotional safety
to finish school, earn money and contribute to
10. Safe spaces make the girl effect happen.
Safe spaces build the confidence, knowledge, economic
assets and connections girls need to unleash the girl effect. At
the Employment and Livelihoods Program for Adolescents (ELA),
implemented by BRAC in Uganda, girls who participated in safe space
and livelihoods groups have increased their income by 33 per cent
since starting the programme and are 12.6 per cent more likely to
always use a condom when they have sex.
What's more, girls' reports of forced sex are down 83
per cent. The BRAC girls are driving a revolution in Uganda,
reducing their risk of contracting and transmitting HIV, reducing
total fertility, and driving economic growth locally, with the
potential to make national change.
When girls are able to stay in school, earn money,
get married when they're ready, and get pregnant when they want to,
they're much more likely to have productive careers. As adults,
they're more likely to have fewer, healthier children who are
educated, and to invest their earnings back into their families,
households and businesses.
In the long term, they will alleviate
This is the girl effect in