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Engaging Adolescent Girls to Change Social Norms in Niger
Across the Sahel, adolescent girls shoulder a large share of domestic responsibilities. Many have difficulty finishing school, delaying marriage, and avoiding pregnancy-related health problems.
Three out of four girls in Niger marry before their 18th birthday – the highest prevalence of underage marriage in West and Central Africa, according to UNICEF. And, starkly, 35 percent of girls’ deaths between 15-19 years old in Niger are related to early pregnancy.
A USAID-funded project working in the Maradi region of southern Niger is helping young women avoid these pitfalls through adolescent girls’ learning and support groups, or GASA, an abbreviation of its French name, Groupes d’Apprentissage et de Soutien aux Adolescentes.
Leveraging the Local Tradition of Mentoring Adolescent Girls
Resilience and Economic Growth in the Sahel-Enhanced Resilience (REGIS-ER) is a five-year USAID-funded project working in Niger and Burkina Faso to address gender issues critical to resilience and growth, among other efforts. URC manages the health, nutrition, hygiene, and sanitation components of the project, including its social and behavior change strategy.
REGIS-ER began working with adolescents in southern Niger in 2015. An internal evaluation in 2016 led to the new GASA group approach. GASA groups each consist of approximately 15 out-of-school and unmarried girls because they are more vulnerable and have fewer opportunities than girls in school.
Of the girls who express interest and receive permission from their parents, separate groups are formed according to age – 10 to 14 years and 15 to 18 years old. Each group nominates three women as potential mentors, and REGIS-ER selects one based on their availability, discretion, and status within the community.
The concept of a mentor/advisor already exists in Hausa culture – the dominant ethnic group in the Maradi region, where second mothers, or ouwa rana, serve as role models for adolescent girls. REGIS-ER leveraged this cultural norm to garner support for mentoring adolescent girls to be important figures in their communities. This program offers girls an opportunity to learn, grow, and socialize in unique ways that are not otherwise typically available to them.
To date, REGIS-ER has organized 833 girls into 50 GASA groups in the Maradi region.
Building Confidence and Skills for the Future
GASA subjects are tailored to the specific interests of adolescent girls in Niger, based on topics that directly affect them: nutrition, health, water/sanitation/hygiene, and financial skills. The program trains mentors in a variety of facilitation techniques that keep girls engaged and create opportunities to enhance self-expression and negotiation skills, such as games, songs, role play, and stories.
One of the mentors, Abou Nouhou, a 28-year-old mother of seven, has helped four of her GASA group members delay marriage. Abou has developed a close and trusting relationship with the girls in her group. “They come and see me for advice at any time, even out of programmed group discussions,” Nouhou said. “I listen to them and I provide them support.”
With help from local health workers and REGIS-ER support staff, mentors also use community videos to address the delicate subject of underage marriage.
“The video was thought-provoking, and helped me realize my own confidence in my health and body as I have just turned 17 this year,” said one GASA member. “With the support of my GASA group, I informed my mother that I did not wish to be married too soon. I invited her to watch the video. Once she accepted my decision, I also asked her to let my younger sister Rakia grow older before marrying.”
GASA Groups Across Niger?
Demand for more GASA groups is growing in villages with active GASA groups. Other partners in Niger have expressed interest in expanding the approach across the country. Over the next several months, REGIS-ER will focus on preparing health workers and community working groups to continue to support and coach the GASA groups and scale up the approach in other communities.
“We beat the odds,” said Nouhou, the mentor. “I feel proud of myself and my community. The GASA group gives these girls self-assurance and shapes their leadership. They are now more integrated in community life and I am sure they will continue to play a positive role for women in their community throughout their lives.”
Four girls of Achalou GASA group who dared to say no to child marriage (Credit: Aichatou Moussa, URC Niger)
April 25, 2018