2. Empowerment through club participation

Girls’ clubs and adolescent development programmes generally conceptualise empowerment in broad terms, recognising that there are a number of building blocks that contribute to individuals developing agency. The most commonly measured of these are changes in self-confidence and changes in knowledge. Although these do not of themselves necessarily constitute changes in norms, they lead to changes that can have substantial impacts on gender norms. 

School and community-based clubs both aim to help young people, and girls in particular, develop the confidence to speak out, through opportunities to practise and hone communication skills. This can take the form of presentations, debates, dramas and role-plays, or other fora that involve speaking in front of others and engaging others in discussions. In some cases, girls have used these skills to negotiate for reductions in their workloads, to continue or re-start education or to delay marriagesOthers have taken these skills to a community stage, through awareness-raising dramas intended to change individual attitudes and community norms on issues such as child marriage and sexual harassment. In many contexts, girls speaking out – whether in their families or in public – represents a challenge to accepted norms, of deference to older people in general and men in particular.

Community-based clubs and extra-curricular school clubs have a good track record in increasing participants’ knowledge, particularly of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and girls’ legal rights, as a review by the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research programme (Marcus et al, 2017) shows. This increased knowledge is a building block that girls can draw on to help them manage menstruation, in their sexual relationships, and when facing challenges to realising their own rights or other people’s. This knowledge can also challenge taboos about what children (girls and boys) should know at different stages of their lives (e.g. the idea that unmarried girls should be ignorant about sex), and what can be discussed between parents and children, or between partners and spouses. Several evaluations - of Development Initiative Supporting Health Adolescents (DISHA), Go Girls, Learning Games, Better Life Options (BLO) and Planning Ahead for Girls’ Empowerment and Employability (PAGE) report greater parent-child communication on issues related to puberty and SRH. It is also clear from qualitative studies that parents and children alike see this improved communication (on these and other topics) as a positive outcome of programme participation.

While non-formal education on topics such as bodily change, SRH, gender equality, legal rights and financial literacy is common to most programmes, a smaller group of clubs support girls to continue in, and/or join (or re-join) formal education. As numerous studies have shown (Marcus and Page, 2016; Sperling and Brooks, 2016), secondary education is the single most important factor contributing to gender norm change. Although the mechanisms through which this takes place have not been fully unpacked, it is likely that they include increased knowledge, exposure to new ideas, role models and peers from other backgrounds, and increased economic opportunities after leaving school. 

School-based clubs have the potential to contribute to academic attainment, exposure to new ideas, increased aspirations and strengthening of peer networks. Evaluations tend to focus on broader educational improvement programmes, of which these clubs are a part, but find positive changes in educational outcomes, non-cognitive outcomes such as aspirations, and in participants adopting more gender-egalitarian attitudesCommunity-based programmes offering catch-up education to girls who had missed out on schooling, as part of the broader set of activities offered by clubs, have also been successful in enabling out-of-school girls to get basic qualifications and, in some cases, to transition into the formal school system. The effects of these programmes on gender norms have not been examined, but it is plausible that they may contribute to norm change via the broader effects of education.

Community-based programmes targeting older girls often include vocational training components, while programmes across a range of age groups support financial literacy and savings. These activities aim to contribute to girls’ overall empowerment by enhancing their financial self-reliance, and by boosting their status in their households as economic contributors. There is also evidence – despite the overall mixed record of vocational training programmes – that when well designed and implemented, they have been successful in achieving those aims. As with other outcomes, these programmes provide some building blocks for independent economic activity, which can challenge stereotypes and norms about girls’ and women’s economic activity. There is also some evidence of reduced reliance on risky practices such as transactional sex (BLO, Ishaka, RWANDA AGI and TRY). 

Finally, club participation can help young people develop stronger social networks. These can be particularly important to girls who do not attend school and thus have little exposure to the world outside their families; importantly, these networks include role models and increased connections with supportive adults in the community, as well as peers. Strengthened social networks can be important for girls who need support to challenge gender norms, and a safety net to fall back on if – for example, by refusing an unwanted marriage – they need a safe place to go to. They can also provide a context in which new ideas and practices become normalised. 

This brief overview of evidence has shown that despite their focus on individual girls’ empowerment, there are a number of ways in which girls’ clubs and youth clubs can contribute to norm change. We now look at their more direct effects on attitudes and norms.

Marcus, R., 2017 Girls' clubs and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK