Co-Author: Tanvi Mishra
6 min read
The idea is simple: no programme can be truly transformative until it intentionally embeds and empowers the communities that it is meant to benefit. This belief has driven EMpower’s work. We believe that the greatest experts on girls’ lives are girls themselves. Over the last 12+ years, we have been on a journey globally to enable girls to lead in our work by employing participatory approaches. There have been many bright spots on this journey—and we have also had several learnings along the way.
Invest in the process not just the outcomes
Our first and most critical learning has been to fund the process of participation and not just the outcomes. Participatory approaches require investing time and resources in girls, and providing training and creating spaces for them to lead and make meaningful decisions. This is a worthwhile investment, because when girls are the architects of programmes, they build capacity to think independently and make decisions, which also translates into how they negotiate their education, careers, and relationships.
Additionally, it makes programmatic sense. When girls are in the driver’s seat and advising local organisations, it increases the organisations’ accountability to the communities where they work, makes programmes more relevant, and facilitates solutions that are rooted in lived experience and wisdom. With girls becoming visible as role models and by changing perceptions of what girls can and should do in their homes and communities, a ripple effect is created resulting in increased potential for wider social transformation.
“When I began working in this space, my approach was to always be a perfectionist, or in other words, that something was lacking in young people and it was our job to enrich them in new ways,” said Jayanthi Pushkaran, Senior Programme Officer, Adolescent Girls. “However, what I have learned in the past decade of working directly with girls is that they already have wisdom and expertise through their lived experience—it’s our role to merely create conducive spaces for them to shine.” During COVID-19, we saw girls build solidarity and collectivise to help those who were most affected. COVID-19 did not make leaders out of these girls: their leadership took on even more meaning during the crisis.
The need to be flexible while taking the long view
In the summer of 2019, we were pleased to launch our India country strategy based on concrete advice and recommendations from our Girls Advisory Council, comprising 16 girl leaders who represent EMpower grantee partner organisations and advise EMpower on its programmatic work. Little did we know that the world was going to change, less than one year later, in March 2020.
In the midst of the pandemic, we asked girls what the crisis had meant for them—and importantly, what advice they had for us. And in 2021, we launched a three-month participatory action research project on the real-time impact of COVID-19 on girls’ lives. We trained 25 girls across 7 cities to interview 153 peers and to become leaders. The girls, who were involved in every step of this research initiative, not only identified challenges they faced and needs, but also devised solutions and made recommendations to build back more inclusively. We published the findings in the report COVID: In Her Voice.
What we learned through this endeavour was that needs can often change dramatically. And while the long view is essential in cultivating our ‘North Star’ as an organisation, we need to ensure that our strategic plan not only allows for, but also embraces flexibility. This flexibility is what can allow us to be responsive to the advice that we receive from girls and enable us to meet their articulated needs. These pivots were in part possible because of girls shaping the research questions, so that they were more relevant; we had stronger insights because the girl researchers had access to and developed the confidence of the other girls they interviewed; and their analysis revealed deep thinking about stakeholders at different levels and in different spaces.
Doing this did not mean that we lost sight of our ‘North Star,’ but rather that we incorporated the short- and medium-term implications of the pandemic such as school closures, the loss of livelihoods, and limited access to physical and mental health care into our programmes.
Our agility would not have been possible without continuous feedback loops. What we have learned is the importance of intentionally embedding these loops across the life cycle of the programme: from conception to design, to implementation and impact assessment. Young people were involved every step of the way.
One example of this is our Adolescent Girls Learning Community—a vibrant group of local grantee partner organisations, mentors, and girls— which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. We looked back at how far we have come and sought to hear from the Learning Community. “At this juncture, we realised that while our model had many positives, there were things that we had to learn, unlearn, and reflect upon,” said Jayanthi Pushkaran. We convened a group of four girls from the Learning Community to help us strengthen our model and ensure that it is rooted in and addresses the needs of girls. We will be launching the next iteration of our programme guide in the coming months—with the girls’ advice at the heart of it.
We have recognised the critical importance of safeguarding when working directly with young participants and understand that our work might strive to effect narrative change, but it must elicit participants’ full and informed consent, ensure their safety and confidentiality and cause no harm. We aim to create safe spaces where the young people can thrive. For example, as part of the COVID: In Her Voice research, safeguarding was an integral part of the process and intentionally covered in the trainings for the girl researchers. We allocated allowances for each girl to secure a safety kit that included sanitiser, N95 masks, gloves etc.; their travel expenses from the community centre to the field and back were covered and one staff member in each grantee partner organisation was established as the point person to address any concerns the girls had. Additionally, girls were requested to avoid clicking photos of research participants without their explicit consent. We had check-ins at each stage of the research journey to ensure that any potential risks were identified and mitigated. Jayanthi Pushkaran, Senior Program Officer, Adolescent Girls says, “We recognise the barriers that prevent girls from actively participating in programmes such as being far from centres, security concerns, and having non-supportive parents. By identifying and addressing these hurdles, we strive to create an environment where girls can participate more fully.”
Participation: The Wheels are in Motion
Our experience illustrates how participation and leadership can be redefined, with girls at the centre. At the same time, our journey as an organisation highlights the importance of learning and unlearning at every juncture, embracing both the successes and adjusting or pivoting when needed. This reflexivity enables us to fine tune how we engage girls. As we think about a more equitable future, we know that participatory approaches in development are not a distant dream, but something achievable and tangible. They are a work-in-progress, and also, most certainly a critical way forward.