The most challenging part of enabling female youth to create or seek quality employment is understanding who the most excluded girls are. A “gender data gap” renders many aspects of women’s lives unseen and leaves many of the girls most in need invisible. Girls — especially poor girls — are often cited as a key constituency for health and development initiatives, but many programs fail to reach them because they are hard to locate and difficult to engage.
Critical life and employability skills, or “transferable skills,” have not been integrated into Benin’s formal education system, so even those who are literate often lack the skills they need to secure employment or gain agency in their lives (Source). The few young women and adolescent girls who are employed are more likely to be underemployed. In addition, seventy-four percent of females in the youth labour force in Benin earn below the minimum wage (Source).
Understanding who the most excluded are, where they live, and what stands in their way is the most challenging part of building the capacity of young women to create or to create their own future.
While investments in young women are increasing, the lack of data on girls and their visibility results in development programs reaching those who are better off and not those with the highest level of need.
The need to address this problem is critical and timely because of the growing population of youth in Benin, particularly vulnerable female youth. Integrating them into the economy could also serve to bolster economic growth, development, and stability.
The Batonga Foundation arms the most vulnerable female youth with the skills to realize their economic potential. Batonga’s mission is to equip the hardest-to-reach girls and women with knowledge and skills to be agents of change in their own lives and communities. Batonga strives to go “beyond the paved road,” and reach girls who are “invisible” or typically left out of traditional education and development initiatives.
To address the problem outlined above, Batonga implemented a pilot program, Mapping, Targeting, and Training Benin’s Future Leaders, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation.
These efforts resulted in accurate data for more informed decisions about programming for adolescent girls in Benin.
Upon completing the pilot, 1,466 of the neediest girls in target villages were enrolled in further skills training and engaged in sustainable income-generating activities.
There is now a richer understanding of girl-centred programming among a diverse network of partners, paving the way for the design and implementation of more successful and targeted programs for young women and girls in Benin.
Measuring improvements in skills such as leadership, self-esteem, communication, and collaboration proved difficult in the pilot. Tracking progress in student-centred pedagogy is time-consuming and requires continual training, practice, and feedback.
Batonga is working with the Population Council to develop a mobile-based monitoring tool. The mobile-based monitoring tool will:
Batonga hopes to use this tool to develop innovative ways of tracking participant progress in real time.
Based on country-level Demographic and Health Surveys population data on Benin, Batonga had expected to find 1,600 girls between the ages 15 and 24. In reality, there were approximately 557 girls in the target area. To reach the target of 1,600 girls, Batonga needed to map 13 additional villages and hire an additional 16 mentors and two supervisors to establish new clubs.
Through focus group discussions, Batonga’s team discovered that often, to avoid early marriage, girls in the 15-to-24 age cohort relocate to nearby cities either to learn a trade, find income-generating activities, or continue their studies. Thus, the new villages selected were presumed relocation sites.
These findings are critical, as they clearly indicate the need for granular, village-level data on girls’ lived experience in order to plan effectively.
Economic migration can often increase girls’ vulnerability to violence, trafficking, and exploitation. If girls have access to financial literacy and entrepreneurship training through their Girls Clubs, they will:
Data from the pilot suggests that it is critical for younger girls (at least 13–14) to be included (see chart below).
Batonga found that school enrollment starts dropping at age 12. By age 14, only six out of 10 girls are enrolled in school. By age 19, three out of 10 girls are already mothers.
About the Girl Roster™
The Girl Roster™ was developed by the Population Council and the Women’s Refugee Commission to strengthen practitioners’ ability to see the full universe of girls in their community and craft intentional plans to reach the most excluded segments. It is a household questionnaire that captures how many girls are in the catchment area and a rapid analysis tool that segments girls by age, schooling, marital, childbearing, and living-arrangement status.
Working with polygamous families and understanding their particular needs was also a challenge. The status of girls can often become even more fragile when a father or a husband marries again and begins another household that excludes that girl. Batonga found that many girls who were still in school were struggling because they were experiencing this form of exclusion. Within polygamous families, which wives and which children receive the most resources and support can be a sensitive subject, and therefore difficult to capture accurately. This is exactly the type of scenario that can only be uncovered by going door-to-door with a survey tool like the Girl Roster™.
Batonga addressed this challenge by contextualizing the survey questions to capture the status and vulnerability of girls in polygamous families.
Achieving the goal of a 90 percent attendance rate in the Girls Clubs was a challenge in the initial months. Batonga responded by deepening their student-centred approach, implementing follow-up home visits, and providing role models and incentives.
The participatory approach to the curriculum promoted an open, supportive, and positive atmosphere often in contrast to participants’ reality at home and therefore may have led to increased attendance rates.
Following up absences with home visits by mentors helped identify and overcome challenges at home that may have affected attendance.
The involvement of graduated Batonga scholarship recipients — who had gone on to post-secondary studies — as mentors and role models appeared to improve attendance rates.
Batonga leveraged their partnership with TOMS shoes by distributing 2,000 pairs of shoes to participants after achieving a 90 percent attendance rate. This incentivized attendance and partially addressed the challenge of travel distance for some.
Unless the most vulnerable girls are carefully identified and recruited, they will remain unlikely to benefit from development programs. This is largely due to the lack of data on those most in need. Information shaped the pilot’s emphasis on “safe spaces” and schedules that respond to these young women’s busy lives and many commitments.
Batonga involved participants at all levels: as enumerators, mentors, and participants. Their engagement informed curriculum development, the location of clubs, the monitoring and evaluation process, the relevance of the material and services being offered, and approaches to recruitment and retention. Batonga observed that the girls took great pride in their participation, and their self-esteem and confidence improved as a result.
Learning, flexibility, and real-time adaptation are critical. For example, Batonga expanded focus to 13 villages from eight based on data analysis, and added supplemental lessons to the curriculum based on mentor and participant feedback. The pilot emphasized the need for reporting and systems that support learning. It also actively encouraged staff to take risks and view issues as learning opportunities rather than failures. Training and reporting methods should be treated as tools within a larger culture of learning, and should foster innovation and risk-taking.
Batonga found that a conventional curriculum doesn’t always prepare girls for meaningful livelihoods. Furthermore, reintegration into the formal school system isn’t feasible for, or desired by, some girls. Instead, there was more demand for practical skills and entrepreneurship training, ideally followed by connections to income-generating activities. The modular Girls Clubs’ curriculum allowed for the tailoring of skills training that the participants wanted and needed.
Batonga’s mentors were trained in the importance of girl-centred, competency-based curriculum and pedagogy to empower participants to succeed in work and life. Beneficiaries became enthusiastic co-creators both of the program and in their own empowerment. Batonga also observed that clarifying the underlying values that a mentor brings to the job is critical, as these values are a likely indicator of the mentor’s effectiveness in the role and how they might handle sensitive discussions related to gender.
Batonga’s diverse network, multidisciplinary team, Board of Directors, and group of partners, such as Aflatoun and the Population Council, brought expertise in innovation/education, social/behavioural change, field research/evaluation, and program implementation/management from both the private and nonprofit sectors. This allowed them to engage with local communities, build local capacity, and reach the most vulnerable girls. Collaborating intentionally with community members, partners, and stakeholders to share knowledge reduced duplication of effort and improved both support for and performance of the program.
Batonga has benefitted from having a highly visible and credible champion: It was founded by Angelique Kidjo, a Grammy Award-winning West African singer, songwriter, and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador.
Her passion and commitment is at the core of Batonga’s mission. She is intimately engaged in all of the foundation’s work. Angelique has attracted partners, supporters, and policymakers to all of Batonga’s endeavours. She helps ensure that Batonga’s message is communicated to a broad audience, and she serves as a role model for Batonga’s mentors and girls.
The Mapping, Targeting, and Training Benin’s Future Leaders project has facilitated a more nuanced understanding of young women in Benin and “counted,” in many instances for the first time, the most excluded adolescent girls, who have never been connected with services and resources before. Unlike many existing projects, Batonga’s approach addresses a root cause of development programs’ ineffectiveness in reaching target participants — a lack of sufficient information about the communities’ demographics. This pilot has improved the livelihoods of over 1,600 young women. Batonga’s Girls Clubs have become a springboard for promising small businesses with young women at the helm. Batonga hopes to contribute to an evidence base and understanding of sustainable economic solutions for identifying, recruiting, and empowering the poorest, most marginalized girls in Francophone West Africa.