The Power of Adolescent Girls

With the right economic empowerment, adolescent girls gain life-transforming power and become agents of change

Girls, while they were beneficiaries, became agents of change. They became agents of change for their mother’s lives. They became agents of change with other girls in their communities and also with their local government.

Zanele Sibanda, Firelight Foundation

Women’s economic empowerment programming has historically focused on adult women. The Firelight Foundation is working to change that thinking, and educate the international development community that adolescent girls are income earners, caretakers, decision-makers, and at times, breadwinners. The Firelight Foundation (Firelight), whose mission is grounded in their belief in the power of communities to create lasting change for vulnerable youth affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS, adapted and piloted an innovative approach aimed at harnessing the power of adolescent girls in Rwanda.

Firelight was hand-picked to become a member of the Grassroots Girls Initiative (GGI). GGI is a consortium of eight intermediary donor organizations, selected and funded by the Nike Foundation, to pilot an innovative and holistic framework for adolescent girls’ programming. Defining adolescent girls varies across organizations and countries, as it is tied to culture and context. Ages can range from as young as 10 years old, to anywhere between 17 and 19 years of age.

Firelight worked in Rwanda before they were selected to become a member of GGI. Over time, Firelight found that their grantees were working more and more with women and girls through their initiatives. Director of Programs Zanele Sibanda clarifies shares that Firelight’s grantees determine who to support based on vulnerability, and targeting need through this lens always ends up prioritizing women and girls. “When you define vulnerability within the community and you look at the intersection of poverty and AIDS, women and children are more affected. Women and girls have higher rates of HIV infection and are the ones in the caregiving role.”

The GGI consortium spent one year collecting data to better understand the circumstances of adolescent girls. Firelight’s grantees were finding that girls have distinct vulnerabilities. “In each case, the organizations were able to tell us really powerful and compelling experiences of what was happening and how they were trying to respond to it.” One grantee in Rwanda worked on community awareness-raising about HIV. This organization quickly learned that bringing attention to the issue was not enough. The feedback from the beneficiary communities was resounding: “You are raising our awareness of HIV, but we also have people who are already sick!” As a result, the organization decided to train volunteers to do in-home care for HIV-affected households. What they discovered on those home visits changed their perspective and in turn, Firelight’s. The person carrying the burden of care was the adolescent girl. She was the one taking care of younger siblings, as well as her sick parent, while often trying to earn an income. She was the one cooking, and fetching water and firewood.

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Agents of Change

Meet Rahema

When Zanele visited Rwanda she met a girl who developed a real knack for working with other girls. Zanele took her on a site visit to meet a group of young girls. She recalls, “I could not get these girls to talk and so Rahema…I don’t know what she did or what she said, but suddenly the floodgates opened. She had this ability and it was just amazing to watch her.” Rahema is 13 years old and lost both her parents. She lost her mother first and shortly thereafter lost her father too. Her sister moved away to the capital to find work. While living in Kigali her sister passed away as well. Rahema was left alone to care for her younger siblings. A neighbor, by chance, connected her with one of Firelight Foundations’ implementing partners so she was able to join one of the adolescent girls’ cohorts. Thanks to this program Rahema is not only earning an income to support herself and her siblings through beekeeping, “she has gained confidence yet still maintains a connectedness and humility that…you were just touched by her.”

The core strengths we brought to the initiative were our emphases on (1) capacity building of organizations, (2) long-term partnership, and (3) the desire to learn, document, and share our learning.

Zanele Sibanda, Firelight Foundation