To understand safe spaces, you have to understand girls

Design innovation is the key to successful safe-space programmes, says design expert Marika Shioiri-Clark

"The true power of design is in giving people the power to impact their communities." This vision has already enabled Marika Shioiri-Clark to use design to improve water sanitation in Ghana and women's access to public spaces in Egypt. She also helped to reduce tuberculosis infections in a Rwandan hospital by redesigning the airflow.

Now, design and innovation expert Marika is researching and designing some new concepts for safe spaces for girls, with a focus on "putting aside pre-conceived ideas about what a safe space is and starting from the beginning - with the girls".

Safe spaces are about building relationships, getting support and learning new skills. They're at the heart of the girl effect, which is why designing safe-space programmes in partnership with the girls themselves is crucial. 

"I started by having long conversations with girls," Marika explains. "I wanted to know what it was like living in northern Nigeria as a girl; what challenges they face."

Understanding what holds girls back is key, and that means meeting with parents, teachers and community leaders too. 

"It doesn't matter what girls want to do if their parents and the community are really against it," says Marika. "It's really critical that any concept introduced into Nigeria is accepted by the adults in the community or it will have no chance of success." 

By defining the influences on girls and their daily routines, Marika has been able to identify new opportunities for safe-space programmes.

"What really struck me about the girls I met is that their lives are highly structured," she says. "They have school, they have chores to do and there's almost no time at all for anything else.    

"A lot of safe spaces work has been done within highly structured activities, where girls are asked to come to a specific place at a specific time. But pulling girls out of their existing routines and social structures is hard. So I began exploring ways of enabling girls to meet other girls and learn new skills within their existing schedules and structures, rather than trying to add something else on top." 


Using these insights, Marika has designed five 'thought-starter' concepts for safe-space programmes, which she presented to Girl Hub Nigeria. They are: a marriage preparation class; a service academy; a series of talks held by female role models at water sources; clubs for girls to work together to complete household chores; and a union for hawkers. 

But what do the girls think? After using storyboards and role play to test the concepts with them, Marika's personal favourite is the hawkers' union.

"Many girls in northern Nigeria work as hawkers," she explains. "In many ways, hawking is like running a small business, but it's highly stigmatised in Nigerian culture. Hawkers have very little protection and many people think there's a link with prostitution. I wondered whether you could flip that perception so that hawkers don't feel the sense of isolation that they do currently. 

"A recognised group for hawkers would help protect them. As well as a physical safe space, girls would get an ID card showing they're a member, a visible identifier like a vest or badge and a number to text if there are safety problems."


Marika thinks a union would also give hawkers the chance to define a new future for themselves.

"A lot of girls talked about wanting to start small businesses that would allow them to make much more money than selling snacks on the street does. But there's very little talk about saving money or long-term planning among hawkers," she says. 

"I wanted to find a way for them to learn those skills. There's a huge opportunity to take away these girls' sense of shame and turn them into proud small-business owners." 

But what about those gatekeepers - the parents, teachers and community leaders?

"There would need to be a series of community meetings to explain that it's meant to help girls already hawking, rather than encourage other girls to hawk," she explains. "It would need to be prototyped on a small scale and rolled out very slowly, but if it was done right it could really change the perception of a huge number of girls in northern Nigeria."

The key lesson is that changing perceptions can only happen if you understand what those perceptions are. "The process I went through is a tool," adds Marika. "It shows how to come up with new concepts for safe spaces and how to put girls at the heart of safe-space programmes from the start of the design."

Following on from Marika's work, Girl Hub Nigeria will now be partnering with Population Council Nigeria to support a community of practice on safe spaces in northern Nigeria. The focus will be on fostering innovation and creativity through girl-centred design, catalysing and supporting a network of safe-space providers, promoting learning and sharing across the network and amplifying the impact of the safe spaces work through the Girl Hub Nigeria brand platform.