Christ-Centered Girls Empowerment: 9 Lessons From Zambian Practitioners
Since 2015 we've served over 100,000 girls with our Christ-Centered Girls Empowerment program in Zambia. In this article, we'll do our best to explain our ministry activity and share the underlying ideas behind the work.
Girls Empowerment programs take on many forms and expressions in various communities worldwide, so we aren't attempting to be prescriptive, or tell you what to do. Instead, our goal is simple - to share what we've learned since we started.
Topics In This Article Will Include:
- Program History
- Local Employment For Local Impact
- Purposeful Products
- Girls Empowerment Core Thesis
- Impact Of Missed Days
- Little Losses Leading To A Big Loss
- Our Validating Girls Empowerment KPI
- The 7th Grade Exam Hurdle
- What’s The Best MHM Solution?
- ROI Of Program: An hour that enables a thousand hours
- Understanding The Impact
- Solutions That Create Compounding Beneficial Change
- Including Western Seamstresses
- School Teachers & Leaders
- Not One-And-Done Programming
- Life In All It’s Fullness
- A Vibrant Future
The History Of Our Program: Women's Empowerment That Enables Girl's Empowerment
Since 2009, we've conducted Women's Empowerment Programming in Zambia, and in 2014, we began planning our Girl's Empowerment Program. It launched in 2015. We originally started, in 2009, by co-laboring with a small group of eight moms as they built a school uniform sewing cooperative. Our job was fundraising for the equipment, facility, and machines, technical assistance, moral support, and camaraderie.
For six years, we worked on that simple program - to help eight moms serve between 500 and 1,000 students a year with school uniforms. Because we run a company in the sewing industry, and I have a graduate degree in non-profit management, this was all very rewarding and fun for us. More than that - it became our passion.
The moms made money in two ways. First, they received funds from the parent or guardian who purchased the school uniform. Second, they received a small stipend each month from us. It allowed them to do well by doing good. They were helping improve their community and support their children's school by making a needed local product. A model we began calling local employment for local impact by making purposeful products.
Local Employment For Local Impact: Creating jobs that provide a living wage and assist in a positive community outcome.
In our case, school uniforms were our first purposeful product. They provided a good wage for the sewists involved and also assisted the local school children with the ability to attend school.
Then, in 2014, we began focusing on the challenge of girls staying home on their period because of a lack of hygiene supplies. In Zambia, it was the local custom for many girls because they couldn't afford menstrual supplies. We began working to create a large-scale response that would serve not only the single school we had been working at for six years but also the other schools in the community.
Purposeful Product: Items made locally and used in the local community to make a positive impact, such as School Uniforms, Hygiene Pads, Soap, community gardens, and even hot lunches at school. Such products help further academic success and/or provide high-quality food.
Ngombe Compound is one of the poorest communities in Zambia. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a reported 150,000 people in Ngombe; half are under 15. There are 82 schools in that community; most are community schools, not supported by government resources.
Many children in the community have lost one or both parents to AIDS/TB/Malaria or simply the sorrow of broken families. According to the World Bank, in Zambia, 61% of the populations lives below the International Poverty Line of just $2.15 a day.
In our experience, we've found most homes in Ngombe have ten individuals on average. Frequently, that is a momma or grandma, an adult daughter or two, and a group of children. Food insecurity is a significant issue. In Zambia, only 11 percent of children graduate from Secondary school (what we call high school in America). In Ngombe, that number is much lower.
Our Women's Empowerment Sewing Cooperative team wanted to take on the issue of girls having to stay home on their period. Their goal was to end Period Poverty at the Needs Care School, where our sewing cooperative is located. But we also dreamed of helping a much larger group of girls.
The Girls Empowerment Core Thesis & Activity
The core thesis for our Girls Empowerment Program is simple: empowering girls to stay in school all month, even during their period, adds tremendous value to their academic outcomes.
Our primary process would be to conduct a health class to address the topic of menstrual health challenges and, during that class, deliver and demonstrate the use of reusable pads. We'd also challenge the girls to break the cultural custom and attend school all month, even on their period. Watch a purse distribution happen in real-time:
What's The Impact Of Girls Staying Home On Their Period?
According to the World Bank, more than 500 million people globally lack access to menstrual supplies. That seems to always be the case among the poorest of the poor - What's the impact?
According to a 2021 Unicef Report focused on South Sudan, girls are missing, on average, 5 to 10 weeks of school a year - a massive amount. Other studies have pegged the number at six weeks a year. So, what does this mean?
Little Losses That Lead To One big Loss
As this behavior occurs over time, little by little, girls miss out on specific educational concepts as they miss classes. These are lessons that are important for their overall academic success. These are small losses, one topic at a time, but month after month, they add up. In addition to the Loss of specific educational ideas, girls also lose many other things, including:
- Relationships with their peers.
- Relationships with their teachers.
- Academic competitiveness and momentum.
- The physical safety of the school.
Our Validating Key Performance Indicator
As we researched this issue, we asked the Administrators at Needs Care School if there was a key metric that could be tracked to verify the problem of educational Loss.
As it happens, the 7th Grade National Exams are a big test in Zambia - and therefore an easy metric to evaluate. We researched the data for the three years prior and found, on average, girls were passing the 7th Grade Exam below the boys by more than 10% variance. This seemed like a bright light to us - girls were not doing as well as boys.
The impact? Your academic career is over if you don't pass the 7th Grade Exam. If you pass the exam, you're eligible to continue your education. You may not be able to afford it or have the ability to attend for other reasons, but at least you're academically qualified to continue your education.
It is as if years of small losses lead to the risk of a tremendous loss - your permission to continue academically is at stake. And what happens to those girls who drop out early in their academic careers? This is fairly well documented globally. Extension of academic career for girls is a primary factor in a wide variety of positive outcomes. When it is cut short you end up with:
- Loss of relationship with peers
- Loss of relationship with teachers
- Loss of near-term purpose - to be a student
- Loss of education enabled future options
- Early marriage
- Early pregnancy, which means larger families
- The cycle of poverty continues
- and many other negative consequences
This 7th-grade Exam Hurdle: The 7th Grade pass rate metric would become our validating key performance indicator (KPI). And to cut to the chase - after the first year of our Girls Empowerment program, we found that the provision of Menstrual Hygiene Supplies and the associated health class eliminated the pass/fail rate gap and created parity amongst all test takers. In short, we proved our program worked with validating data. The critical point is that this is not just a "feel good" activity with no measurable outcome. We can prove our results.
What's The Best Solution?
We began our Girls Empowerment initiative as a sewing cooperative, so we understood the logic of a sewn reusable feminine hygiene product. Other practitioners, including the Gates Foundation, have funded disposable hygiene products as their solution. In our view, that is a misguided idea for several reasons:
1. Ecology - in an urban slum, there is inadequate provision for sanitary disposal of any form of waste, most certainly biological waste. Where do you discard the disposable items? It is easy for impatient optimists to disregard considerations for the ecology of a vulnerable community. Sure, it is a space littered with tons of garbage, but we believe, because our team lives and works there, that adding biological waste in this way would be a huge mistake. An ecological nightmare
2. Affordability - the provision of reusable sanitary pads can last a year or more. Providing a disposable product requires continuous replenishment, which is both an expense and a logistics challenge. If big foundations or the U.N. funds these efforts, cost doesn't matter, but every dollar counts for a small ministry like ours. A reusable solution is much less expensive over time per girl assisted.
ROI: One Hour That Enables Thousands Of Future Hours
We've realized that when you conduct a health class and provide girls with the supplies they need to attend school all month, even while on their period, it's a class that enables a thousand classes.
Yes, that might be a bit of a poetic exaggeration, but you get the idea. Technically, it is an hour of class that empowers the student to attend six additional weeks of school each year. That is a massive Return on our investment.
When you factor in the opportunity to overcome the 7th Grade Exam Hurdle, you realize the single hour of health class unlocks the opportunity for secondary school attendance for all students equally, which opens the possibility for college. So all girls benefit in the short-term, and some benefit exponentially. Here's a video of a Sew Powerful Purse Health Class & Purse Distribution. The first few minutes are the class, then toward then end there are testimonials from girls:
Understanding The Impact: A power law is a mathematical relationship between two things where a change in one thing is associated with a variable change in the other, often raised to an exponent. In simpler terms, sometimes a small thing can have an exponential impact.
Applying that idea to our activities - conducting one hour of (Sew Powerful Health Class + the gift of The Sew Powerful Purse) enables a quantifiable amount of additional classroom time for the girls as an average. The individual results will vary, but on average, six weeks of school per year are 'created.' Some girls, though, will advance much further in their academic careers. Those who continue through secondary school and college will have the most dynamic outcome.
Bottomline, a health class that allows girls to remain students longer than they otherwise would have is a critical 1-time event that helps to maximize their academic potential. Maximizing their academic potential is a vital step in combating extreme poverty.
Solutions That Create Compounding Beneficial Change
Zambian Seamstresses: In our model, local women are paid to make reusable hygiene pads that go into the purses. Another group is paid to make soap. Others are paid to conduct the health classes; we call them health mentors. They work with the local schools and coordinate the health classes. In all, 60 team members (as of 2023) are being paid to manage this program.
Fifty of these ladies are from the worst urban slum in Lusaka. Our goal is to work with the poorest of the poor - in the most challenging of places. We look for community members who are passionate about making a difference and want an opportunity to work. We don't require literacy or numeracy or any educational achievements. We'd prefer to work with the most needy moms. Our method of vocational training doesn't need them to read or write. Sadly, many charities create unnecessary implementation barriers that exclude the poorest of the poor. In our view, this is a mistake.
In Livingstone, we have a smaller team, and we set up our program in Mwande Compound, considered one of the worst urban neighborhoods in that town. I'll never forget meeting one team member who explained how she came out of prostitution when she got the opportunity to work with us. Before that, she had no other options to feed her baby, but to work in the back of the bar. I couldn't help but tear up as she told me tragically,
"Now when I see my old friends who are still trapped in prostitution, they always ask, 'When is Sew Powerful hiring, we want to join you?'"
The sewists' lives are changed as they do well by doing good. As mentioned, we call this "Local Employment For Local Impact." It is a core operating philosophy for our ministry. It goes way beyond a job. We offer them various benefits, a beautiful and safe work environment, a steady paycheck, camaraderie, a fair and non-currupt manager, and the opportunity to attend adult literacy classes to finish their educations. Their lives are transformed because girls need menstrual supplies, and they get to be part of the solution. Listen to Brenda as she shares the impact a good job has had on her family:
We are passionate about creating as many jobs in Zambia as possible and want to ensure that our team on the ground benefits first and the most before any Western manager ever sees a penny of personal income from the efforts. We've designed our charity so that all Western team members serve as volunteers - flipping the script entirely compared to how many charities operate. We want the Westerners to do the financially sacrificial things (volunteerism) since they have the most wealth to give, so the local team in Zambia can receive income as they do the work. Hear how a good job has impacted Frienda:
Western Seamstresses: Our model also invites western sewists to sew cross-body purses, which we use to deliver hygiene pads, soap, and underwear. They also include a handwritten note in their purse. This is our second cohort of people impacted positively by our model. We have heard countless sentiments such as, "Thank you for making this possible - I have always wanted to serve in Africa, and now I can." You can read many donor comments about the program in our book, We Are Sew Powerful.
Co-creating a solution with the complete insights and wisdom of the local community is a good start toward finding a good long-term solution.
School Teachers & Leaders: We also work closely in long-term, multi-year relationships with school administrators and teachers. This is the third cohort of people positively impacted by our program. In many schools, the teachers are severely underpaid. In the first year of the program, we had teachers secretly come to us and ask if there was any way they could get a purse because they also needed hygiene supplies. Of course, we were thrilled to say "yes". It made us realize we are also empowering their success.
In Livingstone, we've been asked by the Department Of Education Programs (DEPS) to serve all 49 Primary and Secondary Schools. Unfortunately, as of 2023, we only can serve six because we need more funding.
Not One-And-Done Programming: A key aspect of this program is that we return to the same schools each year and provide the girls with another purse - another health class experience. It helps ensure that their academic opportunity is sustained and as they mature, this beautiful gift, and fun session, is a key moment in their education.
Life In All Its Fullness
We are passionate about seeing Girls succeed academically. But we also care about their spiritual life.
An important context here is that Zambia is a predominantly Christian nation with a vibrant inclusion of faith practices in public and community schools. For example, many schools have an hour of Bible Time each morning. So, we feel in some ways that we aren't responsible for the entirety of the spiritual formation occurring. Nonetheless, we've thought a lot over the years about how our program can powerfully bear witness to Christ.
For several years, we kept trying to find a way to include a Bible or Gospel Tract in the purses, but it always proved problematic. Then we realized we didn't have to do the work directly if we could work with high-quality partners. Now, we work with One Hope to see their Book Of Hope comic book version of the Bible delivered to the schools we serve. Rather than do that work ourselves, we ensure that the One Hope Program team meets the School Administrators and teachers at the schools we work with - so they can follow up with a school-wide Bible distribution. This isn't just a blessing to the girls receiving purses - it's a blessing to the entire school, both boys and girls. Our role is to make the connection and, when needed, pay for transportation costs.
A Vibrant Future
Since 2015, we've helped over 100,000 girls reach for academic success, and we're just getting started. We sincerely hope that in the years ahead, we can replicate our model in the Copperbelt (Northern Zambia) and beyond! If you want to discuss how we might work together with your ministry, we'd be happy to hear from you.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. As a next steps, we'd love to have you consider Getting Involved In Girls Empowerment:
1. Share your thoughts. Leave a comment below.
2. Share this article with your friends and community.
3. Consider helping us reach the next 100,000 and create more local jobs for local impact. Give a financial gift today.
5. Learn more - get our book We Are Sew Powerful or our newest book, In The Gardens Of God, which describes our Feeding Programs in detail. Of course your highest and best review on Amazon is appreciated.