Igniting Girls’ Potential through Girl-Centred Design

Have you ever come across a community program, university course or advertisement and thought it could have used a bit more insight from the very people it aims to target?

I have, and that is why I have been admirer the work of GirlSPARKS for a while now. So you can imagine my excitement when I was recently asked to serve as a Goodwill Ambassador on their behalf! I already consider myself a lifelong advocate for the recognition and inclusion of girls in all aspects of my personal and professional life. And the GirlSPARKS tools have helped me do that in a better-informed way.

You may be wondering, what is GirlSPARKS?

It’s a global training initiative working with organizations and individuals to deliver more effective programming for adolescent girls through an experiential and tailored Girl-Centred Design approach.

Now you may be thinking, why girls specifically? Well, unfortunately:

  • Globally, 1 in 3 women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime
  • An estimated 650 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday
  • 131 million girls around the world remain out of school

Girls across the globe face barriers when it comes to equity and inclusion in so many areas of life. But when these rights are invested in, there are benefits not just for girls but their larger communities as well. The evidence around the value of investing in girls continues to grow. However, a disconnect persists between this evidence and the ability of practitioners to identify marginalized girls, prioritize their needs in the design process, and engage them over time and at scale.

This disconnect is where GirlSPARKS steps in. Their Girl-Centred Design approach provides the skills, knowledge, and tools for practitioners to place adolescent girls at the center of program design and implementation. The method consists of three core modules:

Find Her: Finding the most marginalized girls through data collection tools

Listen to Her: Bringing girls into the center of program design through girl consultations and safe spaces

Design with Her: Tailoring the design approach to meet adolescent girls’ unique needs through learnings from previous modules

While organizations or other entities may think they know what girls need or want, I value the GirlSPARKS approach because it centres around girls’ actual thoughts, actions, and insight. And their input is vital when trying to sustainably and genuinely empower them through any method. Instead of creating for girls, GirlSPARKS helps you to understand how to create with girls.

GirlSPARKS offers training on Girl-Centred Design through in-person workshops and a free online introductory course. Through the broader GirlSPARKS community, practitioners can connect and share resources.

I began my girls’ advocacy journey through personal connection and informal advocacy networks. The introductory Girl-Centred Design course has allowed me to expand my technical training around advocacy. I have been able to apply the Girl-Centred Design approach to all aspects of my work – even if the population I am working with isn’t all girls.

It is essential to continue to expand our understanding of concepts, perspectives and approaches when it comes to advocacy and people-centred work of all kinds. GirlSPARKS provides an engaging environment and resources to initiate that expansion. Be sure to check out their website and social media to stay updated on all the resources they offer!

The Importance of Having a Role Model/Mentor

“Why is she here, working with us boys? Shouldn’t she be somewhere else? How is she better than us?”

As a woman working in a male-dominant field, I can’t help but think of the moments when I felt insecure about myself or watched other people whisper directly behind my back. It becomes even more difficult when there is no other woman in the environment that I am working for who has similar goals as I do.

Fortunately, I found my role model when I was 14. Even though she did not have the same career aspirations as I did, her geeky personality and her infectious ambition resonated with me. Since then, I have shifted from worrying about what others think about me to making my dreams come true.

Finding a role model that suits you certainly takes some patience and effort. Yet, the benefits of finding one are huge: It helps you stay grounded in your dreams and maybe even feel a lot less lonely along the way.

I believe it is important for girls to find a role model as they strive to accomplish their dreams. In many cases, having a role model provides a greater sense of confidence and brings out the great potential that many girls are capable of achieving. Yet, given that there is a lack of great female role models, I believe we can be a role model for ourselves by not caring about what other people think of us and asking what will eventually make me happy.

What do you say, how do we get girls and women to serve as role models for themselves and for others?

Cover photo credit: Jamiecat 

The Most Amazing Week

Although Zambia developed the Anti-Gender Based Violence Act in 2011, Gender Based Violence (GBV) still persists at high rates today in Zambia, deeply entrenched in Zambian culture and norms. Out of the Southern African countries, Zambia ranks unfortunately high for GBV prevalence with 72% of women experiencing GBV in a lifetime and high associations between GBV and HIV positive status.

As a result, young girls living in Zambia face a myriad of challenges. Pressures from emerging womanhood, boys, and social media can force girls to experiment with their bodies and sexuality, though they may lack education and resources on safe and safer sex. Additionally, girls that come from poorer areas or families might not be able to negotiate or decline early childhood marriage. All of the unique pressures that girls face in their adolescence puts them at additional risk for HIV.

To address this, the Zambia Centre for Communication Programmes (ZCCP), in partnership with Peace Corps, is running Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camps across Zambia to educate and empower female youth by teaching them about GBV and HIV/AIDS. I had the great privilege of attending the GLOW camp on the Copperbelt last week and enjoyed every second of it.

The girls were from grades 8-11 and came from schools across the Copperbelt along with teacher mentors from their schools. They were mature, bright students who entered the camp ready to build relationships, learn, and contribute. TMAW_2

Throughout the week, we played energizing activities, danced, had lessons on reproductive organs, learned about the different types of GBV, sewed chitenge pads (reusable menstruation pads made out of chitenge fabric and towel inserts), and more. I myself learned more than ever before about sexual reproductive health!

The camp quickly became a circle of sisterhood between the participants, mentors, and coordinators where each woman felt empowered and safe to share her story. I heard powerful stories of girls seeking education, overcoming gender norms in the household to find employment, and many shared their sentiments of wanting to spread empowerment and encouragement to Zambian girls everywhere. TMAW_3

Alas, the week was too short, and the camp came to an end. But the lessons we learned and the stories we shared will continue on. Girls from each school, along with their teacher mentors, will now create GLOW clubs in their schools for other girls and will teach the same sessions we had on GBV and HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, ZCCP will host these camps in provinces across Zambia – empowering girls everywhere.

Photo Credit: Reena Gupta

Girls’ Camp: Creating the Leaders of Tomorrow

By Stephanie Vizi

Seventy-five grade seven girls from across Lesotho gathered at Help Lesotho’s Hlotse Centre for a week-long leadership camp last June. The girls took part in life skills trainings, which focused on preventing teenage pregnancy, rape and HIV/AIDS.

Help Lesotho staff facilitated sessions on the most critical issues facing young girls in Lesotho, such as rape, the lure of sugar daddies (rich older men who lavish gifts on a young woman in return for her company or sexual favours) and gender inequality.

After days of trainings, the girls demonstrated their new knowledge through self-written skits, poetry and songs. They showed the consequences of inappropriate sexual relationships (STIs, HIV and early pregnancy) while exuding confidence and a newfound sense of purpose to spread the lessons of gender equality to girls back home in their villages. A daily question and answer period provided a chance for the girls to ask pressing questions anonymously to seasoned Help Lesotho experts.

Spreading the Message

A 24-year-old HIV-positive mother was invited to share about her experience with gender-based violence, early pregnancy and living with HIV. The girls hung on her every word because of the rarity of her honesty in Basotho society.

Myths that foster gender inequity and the spread of HIV still flourish in rural Lesotho. Girls and women are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy stereotypes that often lead to severe consequences including sexual violence, abuse, and a severe lack of opportunities.

The girls bounced around Help Lesotho with their new friends, while wearing new drawstring backpacks, which read: BE BRAVE Sugar Daddies are baby makers ENOUGH with Teenage Pregnancy.

Photo Credit: Help Lesotho

Based on GDP, Lesotho’s poverty level ranks number 149 out of 184 countries. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, leading to lack of education, human trafficking, prostitution, and depression; 61 percent of women in Lesotho have experienced some form of sexual violence. Patriarchal values and norms create power imbalances and limit women’s rights; stereotyping of girls and women as ‘lesser’ leads to early marriage, lack of land rights and inability to be decision-makers and community leaders.

Establishing gender equity is essential to creating sustainable social change. Despite significant legislative changes promoting gender equity and the rights of women, cultural barriers and limited enforcement continue to limit the implementation of these changes at the family, peer and community levels.

Help Lesotho provides a safe, non-judgmental environment to question and openly discuss issues related to gender equity in an atmosphere of psychosocial support to foster understanding.

Ending the Epidemic

Near the end of the week, Help Lesotho provided HIV testing for the girls with the help of local organizations. The girls were encouraged to know their statuses. Many of the girls were nervous, but one by one they took their lives into their own hands and got tested.

A group of girls lingered hesitantly around the testing room. They said they were too scared to test. After a conversation about how it was their responsibility to keep themselves healthy and prevent future infections – a light switched on in each of their young minds.

Women in Lesotho are more vulnerable to contracting HIV—in the 15-24 age bracket, 1/4 of men and half of young women have HIV or AIDS.

HIV stigma is ever-present in Lesotho and those infected are often ashamed and keep it a secret, which continues the spread of HIV. Lesotho has the world’s second highest rate of HIV/AIDS. With an infection rate of nearly 24 percent, nearly a quarter of the population is infected, and everyone is affected.

We cheered as each brave camper entered and exited the testing room – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: girls empowered to take care of themselves in a society that does not encourage them to do so.

Help Lesotho is committed to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through education. We equip beneficiaries with the knowledge they need to stay HIV-negative or live a healthy HIV-positive life. Help Lesotho challenges program participants to understand the consequences of stigma and discrimination in their communities. By breaking down stereotypes, challenging unhealthy behaviours and dispelling myths which contribute to the spread of this disease, Help Lesotho’s programs are a long-term strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Photo Credit: Help Lesotho

Girls’ Camp ended with a candlelight vigil in honour of the victims of teenage pregnancy and rape in Lesotho. As each candle was lit, the girl-leaders’ spirits were lifted with hope for a new Lesotho free of sexual violence and gender inequality.

Girls and Sport: Bridging the Gap

In the highly rewarding journey of asserting girls rights and empowering girls, everything counts. Thus, it is unacceptable that “Sport” is often overlooked in strategic frameworks and programmatic engagements, as a cross-cutting developmental platform for girls. Against the backdrop of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015 in Canada, there cannot be a better time to advocate for more girls to appear on the field in order to discover their potentials and enhance groundbreaking performance off the field.

Infograph IMany individuals who participate in active sports, struggle to express the incredible feeling that envelopes them when they win. Whether it is scoring an unexpected goal, making a formidable pass or completing a challenging marathon, the “can do it” attitude that accompanies optimum participation in sport is indeed one of a kind. This is in addition to the innumerable physical, mental and health dividends of sporting.

Despite the game-changing nature of sport, it is interesting that girls and sport are rarely mentioned within the same context. Backed by age-long socio-cultural stereotypes, many girls who manifest keen interest in sport are quickly redirected to more “girlish” interests like cooking and sewing. In Nigeria (where Physical Education is one of the elective subjects in Senior High School) female students account for less than 20% of a regular Physical Education class, as opposed to other elective subjects in the field of Home Economics – where up to 97% of the class are girls.

The price for the absence of girls in sport is far-reaching, both for girls themselves and the society. For one, girls’ participation in sport is a simple and practical way to crush gender stereotypes and advance gender equality across the globe. When girls can perform the same activities as their male counterparts on the field of play, encouraging equality off the field becomes more feasible and attractive. This means that keeping girls away from sport takes the world two steps backwards, in the quest for gender equality.

Photo Credit: Girl Pride Circle
Photo Credit: Girl Pride Circle

Again, the fast-paced and inclusive nature of sport unarguably presents a natural atmosphere for learning to take charge and make sensitive choices. Since sport is an excellent avenue for nurturing these leadership skills, girls who stay away from it are more likely to lag behind in learning to be proactive and responsible. More importantly, anti-sport girls continue to miss out on the immense health benefits of sport and this greatly affects their general well-being. For instance, in the sphere of Adolescent Reproductive Health, it has been widely proven that girls who exercise regularly or engage in sporting activities have less painful periods and are less likely to suffer from menstrual-related depression.

While it is crystal clear that not every girl has a Serena Williams to unleash from within, supporting girls to be active in sports and play is a gigantic step in the right direction. This is why Girl Pride Circle is throwing her weight behind the #GirlsCan & #GirlPowerInPlay advocacy campaign launched by Women Deliver, UNICEF, Right to Play, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and One Goal . Among other things, the campaign seeks to increase global awareness on how sport can positively influence girls’ lives and call for more research and funding for girls’ sport.

Engagement in sport is a dynamic way for girls to acquire several competencies and life skills that prepare them to stand out. Consequently, bridging the gap between girls and sport ensures that girls jump swiftly across all hurdles that separate them from their beautiful dreams.

The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

Paige McKenzie, young author and YouTube phenom, recently released her first book. Based on her incredibly successful YouTube channelThe Haunting of Sunshine Girl tells the story of Sunshine, a 16-year-old girl living in a haunted house.  Described as “Gilmore Girls meets Paranormal Activity,” The Haunting of Sunshine Girl is certain to delight readers young and old. A few weeks ago, I had the fantastic opportunity to read Paige’s book and I can say with confidence you will not be disappointed. Afterwards, I spoke with Paige about her book and her plans for the future. Find out what she had to say below:

Q: You started your YouTube channel four years ago, a channel which now has over 250,000 subscribers and over 132 million views. What inspired you to create a fictional web series about ghosts? Did you ever expect your channel to have such a large following?

A: I knew I had something special with the views (and the comments!) started rolling in. I was cautiously optimistic when I started. Now I am looking forward to the continued growth and all the new fun to have!

Q: Sunshine, the protagonist, is a strong yet quirky female character. She likes vintage clothes, old records, and old-fashioned photography. How did you come up with her character traits? Do you see yourself in Sunshine?

A: I always say that I am like 99.5% Sunshine! We look a lot alike, we have similar interests, she is celiac and so am I, she has a love/hate relationship with her curls as do I, etc. I knew that a huge part of any success on YouTube had to come from being very authentic. I also knew I wouldn’t have time to really create a character. So the answer was easy – be myself! Plus, I am good at it!

Q: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl has been called a “must-read” by USA Today and praised by renowned horror writers like R.L. Stine and Wes Craven. How does that make you feel?

A: Honestly, I am so proud of this book. I wanted the existing fan base, my Sunshiners, to like the book and I really hoped that people that just like to read scary young adult books would also enjoy the read. The fact that these “horror gurus” like it is such an amazing bonus. I am completely humbled!

Q: What challenges have you faced in making the web series and in writing the book?

A: The biggest challenge with the YouTube web series is the fact that telling a story on YouTube is still a very uphill battle! YouTube is not very easy to navigate if the channel you are watching is best watched in a certain order. The struggle with the book was figuring out how to take a story that already existed and expand it for a book. So many more details and so many choices had to be made. But my co-author Alyssa made it so much easier than I could have ever dreamed of!

Q: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, although your first book, is certainly not your last. Your second book, The Sacrifice of Sunshine Girl, is due to be published in March of next year. What else can we expect from you?

A:  Book 2 is due out in March 2016 and book 3 a year after that! Then there is the TV show (and maybe even a film or two!) and hopefully a series of books for younger kids. I would love to do that! I also am starting to get some opportunities to do roles outside of Sunshine which is a fun bonus!

Q: What has been your favorite part of the entire Sunshine Girl process? What is your favorite part of the book?

A: I have had so much fun from the very beginning! I can remember the first time my mom told me about the idea for a YouTube channel. I know right then that there was something special about the idea! I have loved every moment since then. Doing the book is extremely fun because it introduced me to the literary world, a world I love: books books books! But really, my favorite part is yet to come: The Weinstein Company turning The Haunting of Sunshine Girl into a TV show with me as Sunshine is literally a dream come true!

Q: What advice can you give to young girls out there who want to become an author?

A: Write, write, write! I mean, really. Write every day. Keep a journal, write letters (even emails), write short stories. My other piece of advice is to find authors you admire and follow them on social media. Pay attention to the advice they give. Almost every author has a blog or website (or both) where they will answer questions and share their story. Take advantage of that!

HauntingSunshineGirl HC coverBecome a Sunshiner! Follow the Haunted Sunshine series on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Buy the book on Amazon or at your local bookstore today!