In India, girls seldom have safe spaces to find support and camaraderie, use their voices, build their self-esteem, and develop leadership skills. In 2012, EMpower created such a space, establishing the first Adolescent Girls Learning Community in Mumbai. Anchored in the principles of girls’ agency and collective action, the Learning Community nurtured and empowered girls as leaders. We established a second Adolescent Girls Learning Community in Delhi in 2017 and a third this past year in Rajasthan. Thus far, 2000 girls have participated in the programme.
The model is being replicated, adapted, and scaled up in other countries by CARE and other organisations. We believe that girls are the experts in their lives and capable of being changemakers in their communities. Through the Learning Community, we fostered learning among them—with the girls finding both their individual and collective power in the process.
The Learning Community is a vibrant group comprised of grantee partner organisations, mentors, and girls. Each Learning Community is coordinated by a local partner: Vacha Trust in Mumbai and YP Foundation in Delhi, and EMpower provides funding, thought partnership, and guidance.
Adolescent girls identify the priority issues they and other girls face and are trained and supported to discover approaches to tackle them. The girls design, lead, and implement community interventions and activities, speaking out in their local environments. The Learning Community provides the opportunity for mentorship and networking—where ideas are shared and tested, and organisations and individuals feel supported.
Many of their ideas have been actualised and had real effect. In Mumbai, girls were often not allowed to walk by themselves, play on playgrounds, or be out in public due to traditional gender norms and safety concerns. To challenge this, girl leaders from the Learning Community held rallies, street plays, and protests. They held meetings with families and leaders in their neighbourhoods. They called for improved sanitation, and access to playgrounds and other safe spaces. This activism was vital for the girls: Vacha staff noted that leading these activities helped to increase the girls’ self-esteem. And they were successful in spurring change. There are now better community toilets in their neighbourhoods, and they can access sanitary pads more easily. They also succeeded in setting up street libraries and can play on the local playgrounds.
We recently released a Girls and Gender Strategy that crystalises much of our learning from this initiative. Our analysis of the programme reveals that the longer the girls participate, the better able they are to develop their individual agency. Years later, the Learning Community has been shown to be powerful in unleashing and amplifying the voices of girls and providing a platform for them to lift themselves and others.
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