It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. School has been out for nearly an hour. Fifteen giggling teenage girls huddle outside a mud-brick structure near the center of the village. “Malama, malama (teacher, teacher),” several of the girls cry out. Malama puts a finger to her lips to silence the girls. We are speaking with the Sarki—the village head—who greeted my colleague and I when we entered the village several minutes earlier. “This program is important. Look at the girls’ excitement,” Malama translates the Sarki’s words. “He says we must go now, the girls need their time in that room.”
“That room” is home to a weekly, two-hour Safe Space Youth Club, a project of the Packard-funded Girl-Child Education program in Northern Nigeria, implemented by Ahmadu-Bello University’s Population & Reproductive Health Initiative and UC Berkeley’s Bixby Center. Every week during the school year, the clubs meet in nine rural villages outside the northern city of Zaria. The clubs supplement formal education with lessons on literacy, numeracy, life-skills and health. But perhaps most importantly, the clubs offer a safe place for girls to share, teach, laugh and learn.
Since its inception in 2008, more than 600 girls ranging from 12 to 17 years of age have completed the year-long program that encourages girls to make the “jump” from primary to secondary school. As girls finish primary school around age 12, many drop out to work and soon after marry. Staying in school, even just one year longer, has tremendous benefits for a young girl, her family, her future family and her community. Research suggests that by staying in school longer, girls delay their age of marriage, which in turn delays their age of first childbirth and leads to women with fewer children over their life-course – ultimately reducing the risk of maternal morbidity and mortality.
As of 2012, 90% of girls who completed the year-long Safe Space Youth Club program went on to graduate from secondary school. This is remarkable compared to survey data from Zaria indicating that less than 7% of girls in the region attend secondary school (DHS Nigeria, 2008).
As a Bixby fellow this past summer (2013), my job was to help develop community-based research and evaluation of the program. Under the guidance of Principal Investigator Dr. Daniel Perlman and the Bixby team, my colleague, Kyle Engelman, and I worked with a team of ethnographers collecting qualitative data and helped with the design of an evaluation measuring the program’s impact. Preliminary findings from ethnographic field notes and interviews indicate that some girls in the program are using negotiation skills to stay in school, even after marriage. Community members are reporting increased acceptance of girls continuing on to secondary school, most notably among fathers and husbands. There is reporting of girls as more “responsible” and “hard-working” at home since their enrollment in the program. Some girls are even negotiating with their fathers and uncles to have a say on whom they marry.
In addition to such indicators of self-esteem and agency, qualitative research suggests an increase in reproductive and preventative health knowledge. As one participant reported, “As a girl and future mother, the program has improved (my) knowledge on a lot of things such as the oral rehydration solution, the knowledge of detecting danger signs during pregnancy and how to advise women with danger signs to get medical attention in the hospital.”
The Safe Space Youth Clubs are proof that when a dedicated Malama (teacher), a supportive Sarki (village head) and 15 twinkling-eyed girls come together – life transforming relationships and skills may grow. As I had the opportunity to witness with my own eyes, there is no doubt something special taking place in “that room.”