"As tall as the sky": Helping Girls to Reach New Heights

March 24, 2016Feyi Rodway

Does the way a girl feels about herself and her abilities really affect her learning progress? Is this one of the reasons why so many of the world’s most marginalised girls perform poorly in school? My recent research in Ghana explored why many girls - despite being just as ambitious as the boys around them - felt they were somehow designed to do less well academically. This misconception led many of the girls I met there to believe that they would never be able to achieve their dreams, ultimately contributing to a pattern of academic under-performance by the most marginalised girls in Ghana’s schools.

I am now working on DFID’s Girls’ Education Challenge, advising projects across its global portfolio. A recent trip to Ghana to support the work of the Varkey Foundation reinforced my earlier conclusions: girls in rural villages not only lack access to a high quality primary school education, but they have had limited exposure to the kinds of role models who could inspire girls to believe that they can achieve their dreams. These role models - women who have completed secondary or tertiary education and who have careers that may be unfamiliar to girls in rural villages - can be powerful for building girls’ self-esteem and self-belief, and sparking their ambitions.

The Varkey Foundation’s pilot project in Ghana aims to do exactly that. Making Ghanaian Girls Great (known as MGCubed) is supported by the UK government’s Department for International Development through the Girls’ Education Challenge.

Their Wonder Women Clubs, designed to inspire and motivate girls to want to stay in school for longer and to perform better in school, are held weekly in 72 primary schools across rural Ghana. They provide safe spaces and opportunities for girls to connect with Ghanaian women who inspire, support and mentor them. Using innovative satellite video technology, MGCubed beams hour-long motivational sessions delivered by successful Ghanaian women into the clubs. These are followed by games, discussions and workshops facilitated by female teachers - themselves important role models - on a range of topics designed to give girls important life skills and develop their self-esteem.

Muniratu Issifu is MGCubed’s project lead. She explained how "These girls have really benefited from the time they have with the female role models - they get to interact with eight amazing women each term. This has greatly increased the girls' aspirations. The topics they discuss in the Wonder Women clubs are selected in consultation with their communities. This helps to ensure that the Clubs are actually addressing issues that are relevant to girls' lives."

I also observed some of MGCubed’s English classes. While the Wonder Women clubs inspire girls and help them to see that they too can do well enough to go on to secondary school, the project’s English and Maths classes are designed to provide a much needed boost to their literacy and numeracy learning progress. These classes are also delivered using the video technology provided by Varkey Foundation’s central studio in Ghana’s capital, Accra, while the girls are supported by female class teachers in the schools. This allows more students to simultaneously tune into the classes.

The project is ambitious in trying to address two critical barriers faced by rural schoolgirls in Ghana – the quality of the education delivered in their schools, and girls’ own self-esteem and confidence. Other projects in the Girls’ Education Challenge’s portfolio have similar aims. Camfed, for example, is working in Zambia to adapt an innovative Colombian model, Escuela Nueva. This model has, at its core, a commitment to building students’ academic self-esteem, their sense of civic engagement and classroom cooperation. Camfed’s project team is currently analysing how well this intervention is influencing girls’ learning progress.

Like all 37 projects in the Girls’ Education Challenge, MGCubed is being rigorously evaluated. A recent midline evaluation report shows that the project’s activities have contributed to an expansion in girls’ ambitions. The project’s final evaluation will tell us much more about the relationship between how girls feel about themselves and their potential, and their academic progress. Although numerous initiatives to support girls’ education make an assumption about the importance of building their self-esteem, many projects struggle to articulate this well and to design suitable interventions. More evidence about the relationship between how girls perceive themselves and their learning progress is certainly welcome.

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and advocate for girls’ right to education describes herself as being “as tall as the sky”. My hope is that many more girls around the world will have the opportunity to feel the same.

Feyi Rodway is a Gender and Education Specialist. She has more than a decade of experience conducting qualitative research, and designing and evaluating programmes which aim to create positive and empowering experiences for girls in school. Feyi joined the Girls’ Education Challenge in 2015, and supports project work in Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique and Nepal.

Photo Credit: DIFID, Simon Davis

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