Can life skills interventions help keep vulnerable girls in education in emergencies?

Tal Rafaeli

Adolescent girls are among those most at risk during emergencies, humanitarian disasters, and disease outbreaks worldwide – and the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. School closures, increased economic or family pressures, and decreased access to services and safe spaces significantly increase girls’ vulnerability in many parts of the world. This can result in higher rates of gender-based violence, early marriage and unplanned pregnancies, as well as an increased risk that vulnerable girls will drop out of education. In two new reports, we investigate the impact of life skills interventions for girls in emergency situations, and how these can be best used to address the challenges faced by disadvantaged or marginalised girls.

Early indicators already suggest the severe negative impact of Covid-19 on adolescent girls, especially the most marginalised. As we explain in our reports for the K4D Helpdesk, similar emergencies have seen sharp rises in gender-based violence and unwanted pregnancies – and a decreased likelihood of girls remaining in education. Girls in crisis-affected countries are only half as likely to progress to secondary school (compared to the global average), especially where they are obliged to care for their families, generate income, or face early marriage or unwanted pregnancies. In Sierra Leonne, for example, there were an estimated 18,000 additional pregnancies among adolescent girls in the first cycle of the Ebola epidemic, and visibly pregnant girls were excluded from school. However, there is evidence that like skills interventions targeted at adolescent girls could help to improve the chances of these girls remaining in education and avoiding early marriage and pregnancy.

Life skills interventions have the potential to generate positive outcomes for vulnerable girls in emergencies.

Our reports, The link between girls’ life skills intervention in emergencies and their return to education post-crisis and prevention of unwanted pregnancies and early marriage and Girl-focused life skills interventions at a distance, identify several clear lessons from the available evidence, which suggests that life skills interventions for adolescent girls in emergencies do indeed have the potential to lead to reductions in unwanted pregnancies and early marriage, and support girls’ return to education – at least indirectly. All of the programmes examined in our first paper reported increases in self-esteem, social, emotional and psychological wellbeing, progressive gender norms, and knowledge of sexual and productive health among the girls who participated in interventions. Such shifts in mindsets are significant and may well hold the potential to contribute to broader social and educational outcomes. Moreover, evidence shows that girls in emergencies themselves identify life skills support as a priority need, motivated in part by their desire to continue education.

Life skills interventions have been clearly shown to have positive effects for girls in non-emergency contexts in LMICs, including improved psychosocial, health, economic and learning outcomes, reductions in gender-based violence, greater wellbeing and inclusion, postponed marriage, and greater agency in family planning. Although evidence (especially gender-disaggregated evidence) is limited in emergency scenarios – when the need for these outcomes is arguably greater than ever – there is reason to believe that such interventions can be effective in crisis situations. For example, as part of the ‘Girl Empower’ project in post-conflict Liberia, a randomised controlled trial showed that such interventions reduced rates of child marriage and risky sexual behaviour, and had a positive effect on gender attitudes – especially if accompanied by cash transfer schemes, which had an over 50% stronger effect. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leonne, the Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents programme (ELA), which coincided with the Ebola crisis, showed that girls in intervention communities were less likely to become pregnant outside of marriage or to drop out of school. In communities that were hard-hit by the epidemic, they were twice as likely to remain in school as girls who did not take part in the intervention.

In the context of Covid-19, we must consider how to deliver effective interventions remotely.

Amid Covid-19 lockdowns – especially if they are sustained or repeated – many ordinary school- or community-based interventions are likely to be (or will already have been) cancelled. Similar public health restrictions may apply in future emergencies. With limited scope for in-person meetings, system leaders and decision-makers must identify remote approaches – and consider how to most effectively implement them – to continue to help girls develop the life skills they need in a period of increased vulnerability.

Such remote approaches are promising: mobile, online and radio interventions have been shown to develop the attitudes, confidence and knowledge of disadvantage girls, and to help to shift gender norms in their communities, indirectly contributing to better outcomes for these girls. For example,  in the ‘Girls Connect’ programme in Nigeria in 2017, girls could use a mobile phone to call and access stories about other girls’ experiences and challenges, and then speak to a trained caller who helped them to apply what they had learned to their own lives, with a view to developing their health, safety, economic empowerment and education. The programme achieved positive impacts across of these measures, and participants also reported higher confidence in identifying informal employment opportunities.

Our report on remote interventions found that activities with an integrated approach (i.e. with both media and non-media elements and several communications channels) tended to have a stronger impact. Moreover, tailored approaches for specific communities were also shown to be more effective in achieving desired outcomes. In the context of emergencies such as Covid-19 lockdown, tailored approaches should plan for access challenges for girls in specific community contexts, especially where girls may face barriers to accessing technology. There is some evidence to suggest that interventions which also engage and gain the support of girls’ gatekeepers (e.g. family members, community elders, or teachers) tend to more successful.

It is vitally important to ensure that such interventions can help to keep girls in education through and beyond the current crisis. At Education Development Trust, we know that girls’ education remains one of the great challenges of our times, and we are committed to our research and programmes which seek to improve educational and life outcomes for girls around the world. To find out more about our expertise in girls’ education, please click here.