Final reflections on the EAGER project in Sierra Leone

02 November 2023 by Giulia Di Filippantonio, International Rescue Committee

I think it is fair to say that the EAGER project changed quite significantly from the beginning to the end. I don't think what we thought our achievements would be at the start of the project match what we would say now.

Prioritising an adaptive approach to programming and nurturing a learning culture as the foundations for a shared vision in the EAGER consortium was crucial – as was the opportunity and the space to reshape the project over time.

For example, this was critical to developing and adapting the curricula and the overall teaching and learning model to make sure we could deliver the best possible service to the girls, and meet their needs exactly where they were. We did this at strategic timepoints, after the inception phase, after the Baseline Evaluation, and before we started supporting our second cohort of girls.

We adapted the curricula to really speak to the daily realities of the girls. We adjusted the schedule, the content, the teaching approach, everything - to fit what they needed. This was in terms of competences and skills, but also logistics. We created a programme that girls and young women with many responsibilities and with children were able to attend. Learning about how so many of them experienced anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, and how these peaked during and after COVID-19, we re-pivoted our intervention to strengthen our focus on mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

Initially, we designed a project that envisaged girls picking a ‘track’ and going into employment, vocational learning, professional training and so forth after completing their learning. However, we quickly realised that the girls did not have the skills required to even start on these tracks, and these opportunities were not available in most of the areas where we were operating. In addition, we lost nearly six months of the progress because of COVID-19, resources had to be re-prioritised, and were limited. We had to make some tough decisions, recognise trade-offs, and make the best possible decisions for the girls in an equitable and safe manner.

So, we developed and delivered a more organic and more integrated learning programme to the girls, and we began to conceptualise transition as ‘empowerment’, supporting the girls to decide themselves with that meant to them. At the end of the learning programme, they created their own ‘Empowerment Plan’, in which they set goals for themselves across different dimensions of their life. What does empowerment mean in terms of learning? How can I continue learning? What does it mean form me in my household and in my community? What does it mean in terms of financial empowerment? Throughout the learning programme, they were guided to think about these elements.

The girls decided what steps they needed to take to reach each goal and they received a small cash grant to help them take these steps. Some girls used it to start a business. Others used it to return to school or invest in something that would improve their lives. There was a careful process around this. The whole curriculum was meant to support girls to think about realising their Empowerment Plan and create a process for the girls to experience agency and the ability to make decisions to use what they have learned, and use finances, to pursue their goal in life. This is an incredibly empowering experience. Of course, there was a strong focus on ‘doing no harm’, protecting girls and making sure we were not further exposing them to risks or setting them up for failure.

Many girls are now on a journey to reclaim their power. Recognising that they have inherent value and rights, and building a sense of their own power from the inside out is a process of empowerment. This builds courage to stop and think through what they really want and then take action to move in that direction. As girls build their confidence and stop believing the myths that they are less valuable or less capable or less worthy, they strengthen this sense of their own power to take positive action in their lives. This does not happen in a day or a week – it is a journey that takes time, effort, practice, and support from others.

The project had a very organic design where every component was designed and put in place to reinforce the other. Recognising the importance that peer, household and community relationship have and the impact they carry on girls’ lives, the project also worked at the community level. Community dialogues ran for eight months with influential members of the community, including chiefs and leaders who are usually the gatekeepers, but also those who have the potential to be champions, and caregivers of the girls enrolled in the project. Husbands and partners of girls were also engaged.

Every dialogue would have an action plan component built in and would take place after a listening session with the girls. In this way, we built accountability to the girls, as well as encouraged collective action and shared responsibility at the community level.

Another component that was instrumental in influencing the environment around the girl was a social and behavioural change communication element, which was led by BBC Media Action and delivered radio programmes to reinforce and emphasise the key messages around the value of girls’ education. This enabled us to amplify the work we were doing at community level.

This partnership model for delivering the project was definitely a strength. We built feedback loops from the field level to the strategic, decision-making level, which were really important. We set up a way of working that very intentionally created opportunities for partners to come together at every phase of the project. There was not a single step in the process that did not see a consultative and participatory approach with all partners being involved. This required a lot of investment and vision. It also came with challenges because it meant bringing together different teams with different backgrounds and different views. However, when there is a system in place that sets expectations across partners, everybody feels that they have a role to play and a voice in the decision-making process - and those challenges become opportunities to do better work.

This was a core strength of EAGER and enabled teams to strengthen different areas to ensure that the project was doing everything within its power and resources to protect and empower girls. As specific learnings were gleaned, we used these feedback loops to design new materials and approaches in response. Whilst there were frameworks for these various programme pieces from the beginning of the project, the ability to respond to these learnings and roll out adaptations, ensured that it was truly responsive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the girls. The project’s successes and many learnings about what works to create enabling and empowering learning programmes for adolescent girls reflects the strong teamwork across the entire EAGER consortium and a coherent sense of motivation across the team to put girls’ rights, safety, dignity, and wellbeing at the centre of everything we do.

Being part of the larger GEC was helpful as there was a constant search for the best quality intervention, the best impact we could produce. I think it helped us all to have a vision for the project and do our best. I'm not saying that we would have not done it if it wasn't for the GEC obviously! But I'm saying I think it was helpful to have a strong vision at that level. In terms of the challenges, of course when you are part of such a big system, that inevitably comes with some constraints – like having to fit into a certain structure or process.

I think it was good though to see how the GEC itself evolved - opening up to different understanding and views on things and becoming more open to saying, ‘OK, you want to do something different? What does it look like? And why do you believe you can do it?’

In terms of our legacy, I believe that as a project we had an impact on wider support for highly marginalised girls, especially pregnant girls, attending school, as we worked to build and amplify our influence at the strategic system level. We have always been very vocal about adolescent out-of-school girls and the importance of understanding the barriers that they face. We shared a lot of learning about the work we had done in the area and the impact it had had. For example, the Radical Inclusion Policy has a strong focus on out-of-school children, and the importance to leverage safe space-based or community-based solutions to reach and effectively support marginalised learners. We have also contributed greatly to the shaping of the upcoming Non-Formal Education Policy, as well as supporting the roll out of the Comprehensive Sexuality Education.

At the community-level, we have evidence that tells us that girls and their Mentors are transferring what they have learned to their own children and other women in the community. They are being looked at as role models and are experiencing new agency. We are confident that we are leaving behind opportunities for women to be role models for others and to be looked up to. I think these are important seeds of change.

Small seeds have the power to grow into great trees. Small shifts in self-respect and agency are full of potential to change lives and in turn, motivate others. Imagine the changes the girls experienced multiplied across the lives of more than 27,000 girls engaged in the programme. These seeds of change can shift the narrative about girls. As girls step into their power to think, decide, and take positive action in their lives, the ripple effects will be felt across their families and communities.

On a final, personal note, in the past two years I have been undertaking a second degree. For my dissertation, I focused on social and emotional learning and how this can be re-constructed from different cultural perspectives. I have been lucky enough to be able to use EAGER for my research and I have found inspiration in our work. My experience has given me a new understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and how it is understood, expressed and communicated back by those who are actually learning the skills. I see it as especially critical in the contexts where we operate with vulnerable populations. My work has enabled me to look at this in a different way and will hopefully influence future work on promoting social emotional learning that is really meaningful. 

Read the Final Reflections summary report here