10 reasons safe spaces are at the heart of the Girl Effect

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 potential. 

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…



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 secure. 

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. 



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.



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.



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 communities.



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 achievable.



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.



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.



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 be harassed. 

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.



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 their economies.



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 poverty. 

This is the girl effect in action.