This blog was written by Ellie Caine and Caitilin McMillan, Plan International UK and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was originally published on the Girls’ Education Challenge website on 25 February 2021.
For us, working for girls’ rights in international development programmes means putting girls at the heart of decision-making processes. Over the past few years as researchers and monitoring and evaluation specialists, we’ve thought a lot about how to do this, and particularly what it would mean to make our work more explicitly feminist. By this, we mean research that at its core considers intersectionality, accessibility, inclusion and empowerment, so that research processes themselves help to create the conditions where girls can thrive.
Working together at Plan International UK on the Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) project in Sierra Leone, we knew we had an incredible opportunity to reflect on and pilot more empowering ways of working in monitoring and evaluation, moving away from extractive approaches which simply take information out of communities and instead supporting girls to shape their own narratives.
We asked ourselves: What role can monitoring and evaluation play in disrupting harmful norms and structures? How might monitoring processes and methods be attentive to need and equity, and centre marginalised voices? How can monitoring and evaluation become a positive intervention in itself?
These were the questions, tensions, and possibilities that animated our pilot of a new approach to research and evaluation on the GATE project in Sierra Leone, in which girls took control as the directors and co-creators of the process, from shaping the scope of the inquiry and deciding on the methodology to collecting the data and analysing and sharing the findings.
Setting the scene
The GATE project, funded by UK Aid through the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC), supports marginalised girls and children with disabilities across 467 schools in six districts of Sierra Leone to attend school, learn in a safe and inclusive school environment, reach their full learning potential and successfully transition to further education and beyond. It is implemented by Plan International UK in partnership with ActionAid, Humanity and Inclusion and the Open University, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education in Sierra Leone.
Working with a small group of 10 girls from two Junior Secondary schools in Port Loko, Sierra Leone in Summer 2019, we met together every day in a series of workshops over an intensive one-week period, using participatory methods to create a space in which the girls could reflect on their experiences of education, develop confidence and skills as peer-to-peer researchers and freely explore issues that mattered to them. We wanted to create an inclusive and transparent recruitment process to take part in the research so we worked closely with two schools in the Port Loko area which participate in the GATE project – one relatively urban and one more rural school – in order to select the group. We asked teachers to share information about the participatory workshop with girls in their classes and to identify students who would like to take part. We then invited interested participants and their families to an information sharing session, and from there we chose five girls from each school on a first-come basis.
The group of girls ended up ranging widely in age from 10-15 years old, but the girls all came from communities in the Port Loko area and all were participants on the GATE project meaning their families faced income vulnerability and other sources of marginalisation. The participants of this pilot did not include any girls with disabilities but future processes might consider taking a more purposive approach to selection to ensure a wider spectrum of representation. Our workshops took place in the afternoon after school to avoid disrupting girls’ learning and were facilitated jointly by both of us (two researchers from Plan International UK) alongside two female Sierra Leonean staff from Plan’s local project office. Choosing to create an all-female space was a necessary element in ensuring the girls felt comfortable to speak openly, felt safe and were able to relax and have fun.
Starting the research journey with a ‘ready, get set, go!’
Our research process centred around the use of ‘photovoice’, a qualitative methodology used in community-based participatory action research, often with marginalised populations. It involves participants selecting and taking photos of anything they choose on a certain theme, and then reflecting on the motivations, emotions and experiences that have guided their choice of images.
Equipped with smartphones, the girls went out into their schools and communities and took photographs of anything they chose that illustrated an aspect of their experience of education that was important to them. Photovoice was chosen as the principal methodology for the process for both its practical and conceptual advantages; in addition to being low-resource and easy to use, it also enabled the girls to direct the data capture process themselves and resulted in tangible outputs – photos – which could then be used as a catalyst for a collaborative discussion of their meaning and value.
Thinking differently about power in research required us to explore what meaningful participation looks like in practice. For us, this took the shape of supporting and being guided by the girls in the research questions they wanted to ask, the topics that mattered to them, and then, throughout the process, choosing methods and analytical threads that they were interested in, as well as consciously avoiding imposing our own preconceptions on the girls’ interpretations of the theme. In practical terms, it also meant the girls having complete control of the smartphones and other media equipment rather than handling them ourselves, ensuring that the power to direct the narrative and process always remained in their hands.
Following the photovoice activity, the girls engaged in peer-to-peer interviewing, asking each other to reflect on the motivations, memories and emotions that had guided their choice of images. The girls used smartphones and lapel microphones to record each other as they spoke about their photos, speaking in Krio, their mother tongue, throughout, and developing confidence and skills as peer-to-peer researchers. Through this process, the girls framed the questions and situated the discussions about education in their own experiences.
Making meaning together
Working as a group, we used participatory analysis techniques to interpret the stories shared and make meaning of them together. The girls drew out and discussed common themes and particular points of interest, and there were no right or wrong answers; instead the emphasis was on participants exploring why they chose to group or code stories in certain ways.
Embracing this girl-led process helped to unpack certain themes of interest on the GEC more deeply and exposed some of the hidden complexities and tensions that form the fabric of girls’ lived experience. A number of girls, for example, had photographed fruit trees, a theme they named ‘survival tree’, explaining that these trees represented a coping mechanism they and their families used to fund their education by planting and then selling the fruit to pay for school fees.
Loosening the parameters of the discussion and allowing the discussion to evolve freely opened up space and time for nuance to rise to the surface, often emerging through what was hinted at, but left unsaid. For example, what began as a discussion of the practicalities of travelling to school developed into an exploration of the risks the girls faced in accessing education. While the girls were thankful for the existence of motorbikes in the community which could transport them to school, they also gestured to the spoken and unspoken dangers that had to be negotiated in order to take advantage of them safely. The boys and young men who rode these motorbikes were a common sight in their communities, but the girls hinted at the different types of risks that using this form of transport entailed, with one participant noting that “there might be accidents or other things that happen on the way”.
In the context of a discussion in which early marriage and pregnancy emerged as dominant themes, this euphemistic turn of phrase provided an insight into the constant hazards the girls were required to navigate in order simply to go to school. Raising risks like this also sits within a wider evidence base indicating that girls can come under pressure in the school environment to trade sexual favours for transport and grades.
Communicating and sharing findings
As a way of drawing together their work so far, the girls developed an ‘audience pathway’, mapping out how they would convey what they had learned and experienced during the workshop to others. The groups interpreted this activity in different ways, incorporating drawings and scripts to communicate what they wanted to share. Rather than being constrained within the limitations of conventional responses or reporting formats, the girls were free to express themselves individually and share their personal experiences in ways that spoke most meaningfully to them.
When the groups had completed their pathway, girls filmed each other to capture a ‘newsflash’, broadcasting the story they wanted to tell. Incorporating video into the process generated excitement amongst the girls as well as providing a means to document the work, and was an opportunity to utilise and further develop the skills they had gained using multimedia approaches.
A process not a destination
So, why are we revisiting this now? When we developed this pilot, it sat within a growing call from across the international development sector to move away from extractive monitoring and evaluation processes – only taking information out of communities – and instead embrace more gender-sensitive and equitable approaches that help contribute to transformational change in participants’ lives. Since then, that call has grown louder as space has opened up for long overdue conversations about how power is constructed and by whom, and the kind of transformative action that is needed to achieve real structural change. When we reorient our ways of working to place girls at the centre of our work, we are fundamentally thinking about how to unsettle structures of power that have for so long gone hand in hand with marginalising and silencing women’s and girls’ voices.
Facilitating the meaningful participation of girls and other groups who are often excluded from shaping the discourse and making decisions has never been more pressing if we are to be genuinely responsive to the needs of all in the communities with whom we work. This girl-led workshop was a one-off pilot, and while it was hugely meaningful in that moment, we need to work towards making participatory approaches that challenge power imbalances and allow marginalised groups to define the discourse the core of our everyday practice within the GEC and the development sector more widely. In other words, it’s a process not a destination: a call to action that requires ongoing effort to foreground local expertise, disrupt harmful structures and question how power is shared. How will you take up this call?
The report on the girl-led participatory monitoring is available here.
Ellie Caine worked as Plan International UK’s MEL Officer on the GATE project in Sierra Leone from July 2017-July 2019 and is currently the MEL Specialist for another GEC project in Ghana, also implemented by Plan International UK. Caitilin McMillan was Plan International UK’s MEL Specialist on the GATE project from October 2018-August 2019 and is currently a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where her work focuses on feminist political geographies.