Final reflections on the Closing the Gap project in Pakistan

12 October 2023 by Sadia Hussain, ACTED

My involvement with ACTED’s Closing the Gap project in Pakistan began in July 2019, when I came on board as a consultant to develop child protection and safeguarding policies and mechanisms. I worked closely with the whole team, providing training and manuals. I did two further stints as a consultant, developing an even fuller set of standard operating procedures and then a set of posters on the safeguarding complaint response mechanism that children – particularly those who could not read – would be able to understand and use.

In 2020, I joined the team permanently as the technical advisor for safeguarding and protection – and then became the Team Lead for the whole project in 2021. Having been so invested in the development of the project from the start, the work was very close to my heart!

Project goals
From the outset, one of the goals of the project was to tackle child marriage, through education. The locations in which the project was working were very marginalised and culturally sensitive and it was not appropriate to work directly on this issue within the vulnerable communities. Our hypothesis was that by educating girls and young women, and working with the communities, we would reduce the practice – and this is what happened.

Along with basic education, we provided vocational training. This also played a key role in decreasing the child marriage, because girls were no longer considered as a commodity or simply an entity to get married. Their status was elevated within the communities. In some cases, if planned marriages were not cancelled, they were delayed. This in itself was a significant achievement. Girls were enrolled in the centres and their parents understood that this would not be the right time to get married. They spoke with prospective in-laws and agreed to postpone the marriage and be flexible about timing.

Other challenges were security in the project locations, internal displacement and practices such as honour killings. We had to be very mindful of cultural sensitivities. As a result, we set up very strong standard operating procedures, which we had not had to do before. For example, we limited the entry of male project team members in the Learning Centres as this was not permitted in some communities. Equally, if the girls experienced harassment by men on the way to the Learning Centre we changed location. In order to continue the girls’ education, we had to manage the elements over which we had control – and safeguarding was paramount.

Corporal punishment or negative discipline in the classroom was also an issue – and another area of zero tolerance for the project team. It was very difficult to find good teachers from that community. We invested a lot in their training and professional development, but when it came to ensuring protection and safeguarding, we did not compromise and some teachers were removed. In the first year of implementation, we realised that we needed to invest in structuring our teaching and learning processes. We hired a dedicated teaching and learning advisor who developed resources for teachers and learners.

When COVID-19 came, we were really pushed to find alternative ways to stay connected with the girls and to ensure the continuity in the learning process. We had already been exploring digital means for reaching out to the girls and teachers through their phones but this was often difficult as it was not considered acceptable for the woman, including the teachers and girls’ mothers, to receive messages from strangers, even if they were from the project team.

Nonetheless, during COVID-19, we were able to start using WhatsApp with the teachers. We worked with family members and the larger community to help them accept how useful it could be for the delivery of the project. There was an increase in acceptability for professional women, especially teachers in this case, to use it for professional purposes. The teachers started using it very productively and effectively. They started developing and sharing lesson plans: one teacher might share it with 50 others. There was degree of healthy competition!

With this development, we incorporated digital harassment in our safeguarding framework, adding posters for understanding and reporting digital harassment.

Our official target was to support 5,500 girls, including both Accelerated Learning Programme learners and the literacy and numeracy graduates. But we think we did more than that. I am yet to find one single parent who would not say that they would like to continue their daughter's education. Every parent wanted us to continue this intervention for post primary. That is why we went into public private partnership with the government organisation, the Sindh Education Foundation.

Over the course of the project, we regularly invited officials from the government to come and observe and see it for themselves what was being done. They could see the new ways in which we were working and how successful we were being. They were keen to provide funding, particularly for teacher training which is not something they usually do. They are also using our training manuals for non-formal, post-primary education in other provinces and have requested input on safeguarding and the impact on enrolment and retention of girls.

In terms of our ACTED team, we have a far greater understanding about inclusion of learners with disabilities and all of us have started looking at things through the lens of protection, safeguarding and gender and inclusion.

I would highly recommend taking safeguarding and protection into account from day one. This is what we have started doing on every project. We make sure that we allocate funds on protection and safeguarding, and persuade donors that this is essential.

ACTED is essentially a humanitarian and emergency response organisation, so this project was a learning experience. Our success in Pakistan has created a ripple effect. ACTED projects working in other countries are reaching out to us for guidance. More generally, ACTED’s reputation when it comes to non-formal education has been enhanced.

Personally, this project has widened my learning horizon and I will be applying everything I have learned to future projects – especially those in different cultural or geographical contexts.

Further resources from the project

Final reflections: Achievements and lessons