Through dialogue, community scorecards, and advocacy, the Impact-Elle project engaged girls and their communities, jointly with local and departmental authorities, in a series of actions aimed at combatting early pregnancies and promoted school attendance in Benin.
Problems and Purpose
Over the last five years, teenage pregnancy has increasingly prevented adolescent girls in Benin from completing their education and vocational training. This happens in primary school as well as in secondary school, and to a lesser extent, at the university level. Among the causes of this phenomenon are the girls’ own lack of knowledge of their rights, unmet needs of modern family planning methods, parental neglect, non-enforcement of the law to punish perpetrators of rape and other gender-based violence (GBV) on girls, and underreporting of cases of sexual violence. In response to this, Plan International Benin (PIB) has developed many projects ranging from Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) to promote household resilience and safety networks for girls, to awareness-raising sessions, and advocacy. Throughout this process, PIB has recognized the importance of building its constituencies and getting them involved for sustainable results.
Building on previous successes and ongoing work, PIB initiated the Impact-Elle project to end teenage pregnancy as a means to promote girls’ empowerment through education. On the one hand, the purpose of the initiative was to educate girls, women, and community members about the rights of girls and women and the impacts of teenage pregnancy on communities. Beyond this, the project sought to engage local authorities and to ultimately decrease pregnancy rates and bring more opportunities to young women to complete their education and participate equally in all facets of life.
Background History and Context
In 2012, more and more girls benefiting directly from the Sponsorship Program (sponsored children or SCs) in PIB’s coverage areas started dropping out of school because of early pregnancies. For instance, in the Department* of Atacora, where PIB has one of its Program Units, the Departmental Directorate of the Family found that between 2010 and 2013, there were 1,648 teenage pregnancies in schools, and 228 dropouts, with numbers continuing to rise since.** Those numbers reflected a need for a roundtable discussion on the issue. Anchored in communities and working with government bodies in different sectors, PIB initiated dialogues with community members and education sector authorities to properly diagnose the problem and seek solutions.
A roundtable was held in Atacora on October 28, 2013, on the occasion of the 2nd International Day of the Girl Child (October 11). During that roundtable, which gathered PIB staff; local authorities, including the Prefect and different Mayors; civil society organizations; girls’ representatives from the nine communes; various sectoral representatives (Education, Family and Social Affairs, Health, Security, Justice); and local media. One of the many issues discussed was unsafe abortion. As one of the girls confessed: “You’re complaining about teenage pregnancies because the most courageous girls keep their babies; I think you would faint if you heard about the number of abortions that girls do without their parents knowing it. We lost many friends and people said they died from witchcraft” (roundtable participant, 2013).
Among the reasons for teenage pregnancies, girls pointed to harassment from their teachers and male classmates, including sexual abuse in exchange for better grades, household chores before and after classes, and limited mobility preventing them from accessing information such as books at the library. To address this, roundtable participants agreed on the necessity to build girls’ self-confidence. Discussions, dialogues, and awareness-raising sessions continued until the 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women (November 25–December 10).
Through ongoing discussions, girls identified football as a means of developing their leadership and breaking stereotypes around what they can or should do. The purpose was to be equally valued in their community as boys who play football and to strengthen their bodies to resist boys’ and men’s sexual advances and assaults.
The idea of a project focused on girls’ leadership through sports was developed and submitted to Plan International Belgium (BNO), with additional objectives linked to engaging males and changing harmful traditional norms and practices that perpetuate gender biases. As part of the project’s success, BNO supported one of the girls to address Belgian parliamentarians and speak about the problems that girls face in schools. This resulted in a pledge from the Government of Belgium to invest more in girls’ education in Benin.
Over this period, groups of girls had been engaging with two Prefects (representatives of the Central Government at the Department level) who had become increasingly supportive in the fight against teenage pregnancies. One of them originated the Zero Grossesse en Milieu Scolaire (ZeGroMiS) [Zero Pregnancy at School] movement, which would eventually grow as a national movement, linked to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Building on the success of the first project that spanned 2012–2015, PIB received additional support from BNO for a 5-year program focused on inclusive education and gender-sensitive child protection, called Impact-Elle. As the name suggests, a focus is the impact girls will have on their communities through the transformational power of education.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Through the BNO-funded Impact-Elle initiative (2017–2021), PIB hopes to hold duty bearers accountable for a fairer society for girls and boys with different abilities and vulnerabilities. This is to be achieved through bold actions leading to supportive environments for girls’ agency and leadership. PIB supported two Prefects to mobilize other actors to create greater impact around the initiative. These included the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and civil society organizations such as the Coalition Béninoise des Organisations de la Sociéte Civile pour l’Education Pour Tous (CBO-EPT), the Centre Beninois pour le Developpement des Initiatives à la Base (CBDIBA), Femme, Enfants, et Environnement pour le Développement (FEE-Dev), and the Institut des Filles de Marie Auxiliatrice des Soeurs Salésiennes de Don Bosco (IFMA). The girls themselves remain at the heart of the actions through different interactions with their family environment, community leaders, and political authorities.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Most of the girls participating in the project were initially recruited through the formation of female football clubs. Participants for the football program were recruited through voluntary expressions of interest. A Community Committee composed of representatives of different entities including women from the VSLAs set a number of selection criteria, including the girls’:
- age (from 10 to 19 years);
- commitment and dedication to learning;
- willingness to champion change in their community;
- willingness to be a role model for their peers and whole community;
- commitment to help other girls and vulnerable children to access information and reporting systems when they are abused;
- parental or caregiver commitment to support them in this process; and
- current enrolment in school or in an apprenticeship.
Owing to the last criteria, some girls who dropped out of school because of early pregnancy went back to school or entered a vocational training.
Methods and Tools Used
The Impact-Elle program comprises a few participatory processes aiming to give voice and agency to school-aged girls. Coupled with engagement in the private sphere, methods for the public participation of girls included:
- Dialogue: Engaging diverse actors across generations to dialogue around the issues facing girls. Dialogue is also ongoing in home settings.
- Community scorecards: Facilitated process to assess the quality of public services and develop joint action plans for improvement and accountability.
- Community General Assemblies: Engaging local authorities in public debate.
- Girl-led Advocacy: Influencing duty bearers through advocacy campaigns and media engagement.
- Modeling Public Office: Assuming the role of public authorities to promote learning and boost confidence.
- Life skills Training: Facilitated workshops on skills that support the active participation of girls, such as speaking in public, organizing and leading a meeting, writing a report, bookkeeping, self-defense, understanding referral pathways in the case of gender-based violence (GBV).
The girls participating in football clubs take a lead role in these activities, with an aim to engage their peers in larger-scale initiatives.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
By the end of 2015, PIB’s programs led to the creation of at least one Girls’ Club in each of the 24 villages covered by the project in Atacora District. As a result, at least 240 girls were aware of their rights and entitlement and able to champion those rights. Impact-Elle built on that asset, extended to a larger coverage area and involved stakeholders at multiple levels, including basic service providers, for greater impact. Activities targeted the family and community spheres, as well as the school setting, with the aim to engage all stakeholders with a direct or indirect influence on girls. As such, a focus on male engagement would continue to be a priority.
In the private sphere
One key arena for change is the household. The project engaged parents and caregivers in positive parenting, working with parents to develop compassionate listening skills within the household and to share child-rearing responsibilities. This enabled their daughters to share their fears and concerns in order to get appropriate support in the home.
Coupled with this, PIB facilitated inter-generational dialogue, enabling girls to hear from their parents and other adults their opinions on and attitudes about adolescent girls. Conversely, this provided the girls opportunities to express their views on their own life as well as how they would like to be treated.
With service providers: schools and sexual and reproductive health
To help break down gender stereotypes, the project hosted inter-sex dialogues, through which girls and boys discussed different subjects and sought to understand the others’ perspectives. For example, a common view among boys is that “a girl would never say yes even if she loves you; you have to insist until she accepts when you propose to her; and if in spite of everything she doesn’t accept, you force her.” Girls were then able to clarify and share their own view that, in fact, “we don’t like it when a boy is too insistent” (dialogue participants, 2017).
Beyond facilitating activities to get at attitudinal shifts in the family and community environments, the project sought to improve sexual and reproductive health services by fostering dialogue and mutual accountability between service providers and service users (students and mostly adolescent girls). Through the use of community scorecards (CSC), girls (and students in general) are trained first on their rights and entitlements. Then, through a facilitated process, they gave their opinion over the quality of the services delivered to them, including that which they receive at their own school and at the health centers. They rated the quality of different services by providing a score. Service providers went through a similar process of assessing their own service. An interface meeting was then organised and facilitated by PIB, where the girls, youths, and the service providers shared their thoughts and jointly agreed on an action plan and method for follow-up. Two sessions were organised per year, the first one for rating the services and planning improvement measures, the second one to assess the progress made. A total of 54 CSCs have been organized since 2015.
The success of this process rests in part in the work PIB staff does before the engagement with the duty bearers (service providers) to ensure their availability and willingness to participate in the exercise. This entails fostering an understanding that the process will help them deliver quality services and be more accountable vis-a-vis the commitments they made through the regional, national, and international legislative frameworks.
With public authorities
Through Community General Assemblies, girls have an opportunity to interact with public authorities and bring in their own perspectives in public debates. First with facilitation from PIB, the girls discuss in their clubs and decide together what issue they want to bring before the authorities. As one of them said, “We first listen to the problems the girls of our club encountered or witnessed or heard in their environment; if it is a problem occurring to many girls in different places, then we decide this one should be the priority” (focus group participant, 2018). PIB then helps to organize a side meeting between the girls and the local council, who finally give them a space in the Community General Assemblies. One of those interactions resulted in the rise of the ZeGroMiS movement.
Besides engaging in these formal convening spaces, the project also promoted the creation of additional channels for girls to engage with municipal authorities, particularly through advocacy. Girl-led advocacy aimed at reducing the gap between the girls and municipal duty bearers by promoting increased interaction and directly voicing their problems to the local authorities. Key to the success of the advocacy was presenting sound and compelling evidence. Evidence that motivated the Prefects of Atacora and Couffo included:
- Data from the Departmental Directorate of the Family, showing that 1,648 cases of pregnancies were registered among young students between 2010 and 2013, an average of 549 cases per year;
- The results of the Multi-Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS, 2014), revealing that 20% of girls aged 15 to 19 are already married in Atacora;
- Data from the Departmental Directorate of Social Affairs, showing that from January to May 2016, 2,459 cases of juvenile pregnancies were recorded in the nine municipalities of the Department of Atacora, of which 4% were students; and
- The girls telling them their own stories.
As a result, the Prefects took severe measures against perpetrators of GBV leading to teenage pregnancies.
Connected to the advocacy, girls partook in the Girls Take Over initiative, an innovation connected to Plan International’s global campaigns for girls’ rights, Because I Am A Girl, and Girls Get Equal. Through the latter, girls take on a leadership role, modelling a public and political authority, going through the day-to-day activities involved in that authority’s particular role. The aim is to support the girls’ interaction with role models, to allow them to dream for a brighter future—including one where they can be engaged in public or political leadership roles—and to equip them to achieve that.
With the public and broader community
After each football match, women leaders, boys who are champions of change, traditional authorities and other traditional norms gatekeepers such as grandmothers engage in dialogue around the safety and leadership of girls, including the responsibility of each community member in combatting early pregnancy. This is also an occasion where the girls share their aspirations for themselves, their families, and their community. They express openly how they feel about the way they are treated, how they would like to be treated, and what they expect from their male counterparts, their families, the communities, and the administrative and political leaders.
Building on previous successes, the project also strengthens the collective power of girls already organised into leadership clubs and supports women organised into VSLAs. Beyond this, male engagement has been of central importance. Model Daddys Clubs promote fathers or male caregivers who have shown the most open support for educating and protecting their daughters, and Boys Clubs have engaged young men and boys to change their peers’ mindsets on the importance of girls’ leadership.
Another key channel of public engagement has been through the mass media, in particular television broadcasting. For instance, one girl representative participated in a live panel discussion alongside other actors promoting girls’ rights. She spoke out about the problems girls are facing, as well as the solutions they are bringing themselves. This showed the public that girls are not only victims, but they also have the potential to participate in the solutions.
To protect girls’ safety and security, all the villages involved in the project put in place anonymous reporting mechanisms and held discussion with girls on how to use them.
Finally, in parallel to the activities described, the participation of girls was supported and achieved through training sessions on life skills (e.g., public speaking, organizing and participating in a meeting, action planning, report writing, article writing). Same-sex staff facilitated some of the more sensitive subjects (e.g., sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender-based violence, self-protection and defense). Fostering such safe spaces for discussion also contributed to closing the gap between the girls’ representative and local authorities.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Increased, confidence, voice, and agency
Through the conversations and dialogues that followed the football matches, community members gradually became used to hearing girls’ voices, which had previously been silenced. They became more and more open to accepting girls in spaces they would previously not frequent, including the King’s Court or the Mayor’s Office. In those spaces, girls now feel comfortable and confident to discuss any subject that matters to them, though this is limited to occasions of the celebration of international days.
Local football games were used to raise the awareness of adolescent girls on sexual and gender-based violence, making the messages more accessible and easy to accept. Now girls are confident in sharing how they perceive and experience violence. In turn, they are valued and seen as full citizens with a high potential to contribute in eradicating the phenomenon.
This change is evident in girls’ testimonies, as they show more resilience to stand against sexual harassment.
Building broad awareness, political support, and accountability
At the departmental level, the Prefect of Atacora, a female role model, formed and coordinated a Committee mandated to fight early pregnancies and composed of multi-sector actors, nearly 90% of whom are women. The Prefect of Couffo is as committed as his female counterpart in Atacora.
In recognition, PIB awarded the Prefects the honor of “Champions of Girls’ Rights” during a symbolic ceremony on the International Day of the Girl Child in 2017. The promotion of girls’ safety and leadership has now gone far beyond expectations, as the two Prefects are considering it their personal battle and bringing to it bold and committed political leadership.
For instance, as part of her ongoing support for this cause, the Prefect of Atacora led an awareness-raising tour, which reached 12,916 students (including 5,044 girls and 7,872 boys), 264 teachers (29 women and 235 men), 2,468 parents, and 476 female apprentices participating in the awareness-raising sessions. Also, this led to denunciation and legal proceedings of three cases involving two teachers and one health worker.
The commitment and leadership of the two Prefects have had a catalytic effect on changing the behavior of key stakeholders such as Mayors, Heads of the Social Promotion Centers, and health service providers, especially towards girls in need of modern family planning services.
This also led to increased accountability, as three perpetrators of sexual violence on girls are currently in prison as a result of the reporting mechanism put into place by the Prefects. At the municipal level, for instance, two Communes (Natitingou and Azove) passed a communal decree to punish the perpetrators of sexual GBV resulting in pregnancy on minor schoolgirls, as well as those who try to protect abusers.
Additionally, Plan International has committed to support public authorities and is playing a determining role in that mission.
Changing social and gender norms
The increased number of girls, boys, women, men, traditional leaders, women leaders, sector-specific stakeholders, and political authorities engaged in the Impact-Elle project created a critical mass capable of shifting mindsets linked to girls’ empowerment. This has translated to some degree into changes in social and gender norms, as is illustrated by one girl’s testimony:
“In my community it was a curse for a girl to play football; the belief is that she will always do poorly prepared foods. And as a true woman has to prepare nice dishes for her husband and family, the girls were scared to deceive their husband and face the risk of having a co-wife. This project helped everybody see the lie in that belief, as I’m a good example of a girl playing football and being able to work hard at school while cooking good food at home. With the project also, my parents are more and more sharing household chores between me and my brothers. My brothers are happy to help when I’m going for rehearsals because they are proud when my team wins the match.” ~ Adeline, Club Captain
An indication of how a shift in social norms and deep-rooted beliefs are affecting the school environment, more than 90% of girls involved in the project completed their education without incidence. Further, school principals and judicial authorities are paying increased attention to the issue of impunity for early pregnancies. Finally, at the preliminary evaluation, figures show a decrease in the number of pregnancies in schools; however, it is yet early to draw definitive conclusions.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The main challenge faced was getting the girls to believe in their own potential as well as getting their parents to allow space for their participation. It was also difficult to convince some service providers to do the CSC exercise because of deeply-rooted mindsets and structural power dynamics that do not allow children, especially girls, to interact with adults. However, the participatory methods used to identify the problems and solutions facilitated community buy-in. In addition, the strong focus on girls’ participation helped break the silence around the harmful practices that have remained unspoken for too long. Certain cultural norms silence girls and young women who are victims of sexual violence. Girls and their communities are increasingly reporting cases, which are increasingly given due consideration with the support and strong commitment of local authorities. This experience shows, then, the importance of engaging both rights holders (girls, students, communities) as well as duty bearers (local and departmental authorities, service providers) to achieve shifts in attitudes and behaviours, as well as to enforce the applicable laws and seek justice for girls.
There is an ongoing need for effective data collection to adequately measure change and capitalize on girls’ resilience. Similarly, particular attention is required to safeguarding the progress achieved to date and to avoid re-occurrence once the project ends.
To facilitate sustainability, it would be beneficial to engage more with community-based organizations working to promote girls and women’s rights at the local level.
Plan International Benin websites and social media:
Plan International Belgium website:
*The Government in Benin has the following multi-level structure: A Central Authority, divided into Departments, Communes, Villages and Hamlet, with each level reporting to the previous. A Prefect, who is the representative of the Central Authority (President and Ministers) at the Department level, heads each Department. A Mayor heads each Commune and is accountable to the Prefect, who reports to the President.
**Teenage pregnancies in schools were spread across the nine communes in the department: Pehunco (150), Kouande (109), Kerou (37), Pehunco (213), Natitingou (165), Toucountouna (89), Tanguieta (152), Cobly (110), Materi (147), and Boukombe (130).
This first version of this case entry was produced and submitted by a graduate of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University with the support of J. Landry and R. Garbary.