Preparing Young African Women and Girls to Thrive

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Written by Nicole Goldin and Boris Bulayev

On October 11th we celebrate International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme “With Her: A Skilled GirlForce” could not be more timely or apropos.

At 1 billion strong, today’s girls are a reservoir of opportunity and hope. In Africa, the youth workforce is set to double. Yet, their future is often uncertain or bleak, and young women face additional challenges in realizing their potential. Youth are at least twice as likely to be unemployed than adults and many who are employed are in insecure or vulnerable jobs, working for low pay, no benefits, and limited opportunity.

A strategic focus on empowering girls is especially warranted. While girls around the world are experiencing more schooling and improved learning outcomes, they still face a rockier path to a sustainable livelihood. In lower income countries especially, young women are less likely to enter the workforce and find the transition to work or starting a business uniquely challenging. Cultural and social norms, early marriage and pregnancy (each year 12 million girls are married before the age of 18) disrupts and impedes educational attainment, limiting girls’ ability to build skills for their future.

The scope of the youth unemployment crisis and gender gap creates an even greater opportunity for change. Preparing girls to thrive as leaders and entrepreneurs will unlock a powerful resource for sustainable development by combating inequity and inequality across the African continent. At Educate!, we know that if young people, and girls especially, are prepared with the skills to succeed in today and tomorrow’s dynamic economy, they will not only drive prosperity for themselves, but for their families and communities as well. Educate! focuses on building the skills that we have learned matter most; including grit, resilience, teamwork, communication, social responsibility, business planning, project management, bookkeeping, and market research.

Importantly, how students are taught these skills is as critical as what they are taught. Educate! shifts learning pedagogy from rote memorization to experiential learning and from the theoretical to the practical, providing girls (and boys!) with a more engaging, relevant, valuable and applicable education.

Rigorous evaluation of Educate!’s experiential model shows higher incomes and more successful small businesses for its graduates—with outsized results among its female Scholars. In Uganda, young female graduates saw a 120% increase in income, were 152% more likely to own their own business, and were 208% more likely to lead a community project compared to their peers in a control group.

Educate!’s significant impact on girls is not by sheer luck. For nearly a decade we have worked directly with secondary school students and teachers, prioritizing learning challenges, and designing and operating our programs to overcome them. We believe five factors contribute to success in preparing and empowering girls with the skills to succeed:

  1. Continuous gender focus and accountability: Explicit gender-sensitivity at every step—from mission setting through project design, implementation and evaluation—is needed ensure maximum impact on both girls and boys. Identifying key metrics and tools and using them for setting baselines, ongoing monitoring, and periodic evaluation is particularly critical both for seeing where you are succeeding and where you can improve, with guide posts showing the direction to take for greater impact.
  2. Promote girls’ aspirations: Inclusive curriculum and pedagogy with integrated gender equal content that empowers young women play an important role. For example, Educate! course case studies include female entrepreneurs and women in professional leadership positions so that girls can see and envision themselves in success stories.
  3. Mentor the Mentors: Mentors play an important role in many initiatives but they may not necessarily have the knowledge they need to support boys and girls equally. Educate! Mentors complete a comprehensive gender training to ensure they can effectively facilitate gender-responsive programming and be sensitive to the unique obstacles girls face.
  4. Train the Trainers: Teachers, administrators and other educators often lack tools for empowering boys and girls equally and supporting girls in overcoming gender barriers in the classroom. Educate! works with educators and administrators to train them on gender issues and practices including awareness, equity, and stereotypes faced by students.
  5. Walk the Talk: Organizations that seek to promote gender equality, women’s leadership and empowerment, need to practice it internally. Nine of Educate!’s top 11 positions are occupied by women. We also prioritize gender balance and representation in our youth-facing positions. In Rwanda, for example, because secondary school teachers there are overwhelmingly men, we hired 100% women as Youth Leaders to balance the role models students have.

This peak youth generation has potential we can’t afford to waste. Educating and empowering young women and girls through targeted, intentional effort is one of the best tools we have. On this International Day of the Girl, we hope others will join us in reaffirming their commitments, taking action and sharing their lessons. 

About the authors: Boris Bulayev is CEO and Co-Founder, Educate! and Dr. Nicole Goldin is Board Director, Educate!, an award-winning non-profit social enterprise in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.