Girls Empowered

Stories of Change

Girls' Potential

250 million girls between the ages of 10 and 19 live in poverty. They have goals and the potential to achieve them. The only thing stopping them is poverty.The only thing stopping them is the lack of opportunity.

Educated, healthy, safe and economically empowered girls become agents of change. They marry later, have fewer, more educated children. They use their income to break the cycle of poverty.

Transforming the lives of poor and marginalized girls doesn't happen by chance. It requires thoughtful investment in a holistic program of support.

In 2006, the Nike Foundation launched the Grassroots Girls Initiative, a consortium of six organizations focused on unleashing the Girl Effect – the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world. As one member of the consortium, Firelight funded three organizations to identify and empower adolescent girls from poor and marginalized communities in Malawi and Rwanda. The result: transformational change for more than 4,000 girls.

Data and stories show that girls emerged from this initiative having power within –power to act –power over their income and assets –power to provide – and power with other girls. They may face challenges and experience some setbacks, but their confidence, capabilities, agency, growing asset base, and social capital, will be the resources that will help them to sustain the momentum of change.

Creating Change

Firelight set out to extend an opportunity to girls who had a limited chance for a better life.

Firelight selected three organizations rooted in the communities they served. Each had keen insight on the challenges facing girls in their community.


Three years of funding supported each organization to develop a holistic set of programs to build up the social, physical, financial, human, and personal assets of girls.

Programming included vocational training, business management training, financial literacy, sexual reproductive health, life skills, legal services, and advocacy skills. The organizations also trained girls on group dynamics, conflict management, and leadership skills.


Each organization benefitted from ongoing support to strengthen their organizational management and develop girl-centered programming.

Key strategies included learning circles, complemented by training, mentoring, and peer learning. Digital storytelling gave girls the tools to document and share their stories of change.


An ongoing process of learning and reflection facilitated documentation of the ways that these organizations leveraged networks to multiply their impact.

Our monitoring and evaluation measured change in the lives of girls.

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Power within

When a girl believes in herself, she makes wise choices about what she wants to accomplish and creates a clear plan about how she will achieve it.

She acts with confidence, drawing on self-motivation and support from those who care about her. She is resilient in the face of life challenges.

Khadija shares her story about how she developed greater self-confidence to succeed in school.

80 percent of girls reported greater self-efficacy

In Malawi, NASO integrated the arts, including crafts, singing, plays, poetry, and dance into their Adolescent Girls Corner program. Girls explored their identity, developed their creativity, and gained confidence in their self-expression. A life skills component supported each girl to develop competencies in analyzing a situation, making informed decisions, and negotiating for what they need, for example making informed choices about their sexual reproductive health.

Positive parent role models increased community support for girls. A weekly meeting with other girls provided tutoring and mentoring from peers. Girl-friendly community agents provided contraception for girls who were sexually active. This community of support built up girls' dignity and self-worth, as they felt seen, heard, and valued.

This program launched in a community where only three girls used to take the national exam required for entry into secondary school. Within a year, the number writing and passing the exam had increased by 1,300 percent.

"I think I am a teacher, and a great one. When I teach other girls how to take photos and share their stories, I have a lot of confidence and I feel like I am their teacher." –Agnes

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Power to act

At the start of the program, most of the participating girls in Rwanda had been engaged in various efforts to earn an income. But their success had been limited due lack of support, services, and capital.

Rehema's story gives us a clear illustration of girl's agency.

70 percent of girls reported greater agency

ADEPE and ATT provided girls with an opportunity to develop vocational skills. ADEPE used the International Labor Organization's business management curriculum, Identify and Grow Your Business, to provide girls with entrepreneurship skills. They provided each girl with capital in amounts that were manageable to repay, yet adequate to build up girls' businesses. Girls selected mentors from the community, who provided encouragement, advice, and technical support. Each incremental step and each successive achievement reinforced each girl to believe that, "I can do it."

The access to resources, new skills, inspiration, support, and success of their peers propelled girls' agency. Each one has worked hard to establish a business and expand their customer base. As they succeed, some girls explore new or expanded product lines. A few girls have even opened up a store. As a result, most of the girls increased their income. Before the program girls were earning an average of $8/month. By the end of the program girls were earning an average of $100/month.

"I want the world and the families we come from to give us the opportunity to show them what we are capable of; show that we can do even better than boys and our brothers. Let them give us the opportunity to demonstrate that we are capable." –Agnes

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Power to provide

Poverty – the lack of money, social networks, and assets – defined the life story of many of the girls. The majority were forced to drop out of school because a single mother could not afford the fees. Desperate to survive, some turned to sex work, while others survived through manual labor.

Clarisse shares her story about how she is using her money to help her siblings.

85 percent have a steady income stream

As girls increased their income they were supported to develop the skills necessary to manage their money, through a financial literacy and financial management program. The process focused on developing girls' skills in managing their money, talking about money, and resolving conflict around money. All three organizations drew upon the Population Council's Financial Literacy Program to help girls set financial goals, create and manage a budget, open savings accounts, and exercise the required discipline to achieve their goals.

Girls are also helping their families. In some cases, they become the primary income earner, responsible for meeting the daily needs of their families, especially when they are in female-headed households or when they are the head-of-household. They take on the responsibility of supporting younger siblings to access schooling and healthcare.

"I was able to expand my business and sell more advanced foods like rice, sugar, beans, and many others. I was able to provide a healthy diet and medical care for my mother. I tried to achieve most of the objectives I had set for last year and help my siblings who were in school. I also helped my sister by providing money for her transport to school." –Clarisse

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Power over

In patriarchal societies, gender and age often deny girls the ability to control their resources and make decisions of how to use them. Even when girls are afforded that opportunity, exercising that power responsibility is not automatic.

Agnes shares how she is investing her money.

70 percent of girls have control over their income and assets

Guided by ongoing technical support from the organizations, girls are making sound decisions to invest their money in ways that increase their asset base. For example, many of the girls use their income to buy animals, such as goats, pigs, and even cows. These assets become another source of revenue that diversifies their income base. In Rwanda, ATT and ADEPE leveraged the progressive ownership rights in Rwanda to protect girls' assets. They engage directly with family members and community leaders to protect girls' assets. In some cases they create signed agreements with the girl, family member, and community representative, all committing to protecting those assets. ADEPE trains community paralegals who mediate cases if any disputes come up.

The accumulation of assets and the demonstrated ability to effectively manage them is increasing girls' bargaining power and their overall status within their families and local communities. Mothers now ask their daughters for advice. With the ability to meet their own needs, girls also feel less dependent on men. As a result, they are more confident to make good choices about male-female intimate partner relationships and negotiate around safe sex.

"The changes that happened were really good because before getting the money I was shy, but now I am courageous and confident. I also helped other people to become confident. I use my loan well and this helps me to make a profit. Right now I can ask for a loan from the bank. I am no longer afraid." –Elina

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Power with

Each girl who enters the program makes a personal commitment to use this opportunity to improve her life. And while that personal commitment is critical to creating change, the African ethos of ubuntu (I am because you are) has played an important role in supporting girls to succeed.

The girls in Rwanda share their advocacy message.

75 percent feel supported and empowered by being part of their peer group

All three organizations used safe spaces, in the form of cooperatives in Rwanda and Adolescent Girls' Corners in Malawi. These safe spaces serve a critical source of support, learning, and healing. In Rwanda, girls are trained in group dynamics, conflict resolution, and cooperative management. Leadership positions are created to facilitate ongoing collaboration and accountability among group members.

Within this platform, girls both provide and receive support as members of the group. If one girl cannot pay back her loan because business is down, the girls use their group savings to pay her loan and she repays the money later when she is on firmer financial footing. In Malawi, the girls support each other, for example, intervening if a girl's family tries to force her into early marriage.

As they work as a collective, the girls are also getting community-wide recognition, which gives them voice to advocate for other girls. The digital storytelling and film festivals became a powerful platform for girls to share their stories with the community. What started as a local effort has given voice to their messages in both national and international fora.

"I teach other girls in the community when they come to my home. When I teach them to sew, the machine is available and after I teach them, they practice sewing. Then they choose another day to come back. The reason I decided to teach them is because I was also taught. I thought that it was necessary for me to teach them because it could be beneficial to them, as it was for me." –Benita

Change Agents

Girls as Agents of Change

It is often easy to slot girls into the silo of beneficiaries. While they are gaining benefits from these programs, girls are far from passive recipients.

All along the way, they created change. Read the Khadija story

The accompanying video provides an overview of the girl's journey of transformation through the digital storytelling process.

Amplifying Girls' Voices

One of the unexpected outcomes of the Digital Storytelling is that the process of documenting and sharing personal stories built confidence, voice, and leadership of girls. The leadership and voice of girls had the added value of increasing reach and influence on government and community leaders paying attention to, and investing in, girls.

Impact on Mothers

The change in girls' lives led to positive change in the lives of their mothers. Mothers are at first proud of their girls, but are also inspired to realize their own potential. In a number of communities, the mothers learned skills from their daughters and then grouped themselves to initiate livelihoods projects. Transformation of girls lives leads to transformation of their mothers' lives.

Mentoring other Girls

Girls are also taking on an active mentoring role in transforming the lives of other girls. This recognizes that there are more girls in the community that need support. The process of mentoring others increases girls' confidence and builds up new skills. It further empowers girls while continuing to nurture their agency and leadership.

"After I have told my story, I feel peaceful and free inside. Whether in my heart or in my mind, I feel peaceful." –Elina

Scaling Up

Within a development context where "scale" is the name of the game, grassroots organizations are often seen as too small to make a difference. The focus on their size often limits understanding the potential for achieving scale by creating networks among the wide number of grassroots organizations that exist. Achieving scale through networks protects the importance of local context and provides girls with ongoing support from people who know and understand their challenges. It also leverages the long-term presence of the organizations and their existing social capital.

In this initiative, we documented that these three organizations multiply their reach through:


We learned that grassroots organizations have an innate capacity to connect. On average they work with six other actors for program implementation, service delivery, and non-material support.


The learning circles supported each funded organization to create a larger network of organizations focused on empowering adolescent girls. As a collective, the groups commanded wider respect. They also leveraged each other's strengths to source material and financial resources.


When there is a mutually supportive relationship between a government and local organizations, girls benefit. The organizations help to overcome the barriers that limit girls and their families from accessing government services. They work with schools and clinics to make sure services are girl friendly, while influencing district officials to implement policies and allocate resources to benefit girls.

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Through the linkages with other organizations and partnership with government, a network of support exists to ensure a strong system of support for girls.

"The girl in every woman precedes and shapes the woman in her. And to the extent to which girlhood is denied, liberated, and fostered, womanhood perishes or prospers." –Sohoni

Unleashing the Girl Effect

Africa's success in reversing poverty trends depends, to a large extent, on the degree to which programs, policies, and investments empower girls as vital actors in families, communities, and the larger society. Achieving this transformation calls for creating a set of conditions that provide girls with the opportunity to reach their full potential and to lead lives of meaning and value, while enhancing the substantive choices that shape their future (Sen, 1997).

Grassroots organizations tackle this challenge with a combination of creativity, tenacity, and commitment. In this initiative, they benefitted from Firelight's support to access new resources, knowledge, and networks to develop targeted strategies that empower marginalized adolescent girls.

Key strategic choices in the approach lay the foundation for the success: getting to know the girls and understanding them individually and as part of their family and community; working with the girls in small groups to create network of support; a long-term commitment that provided support over three years; an integrated approach that addressed the multiple barriers to empowerment; and finally, an ongoing process of reflection, learning, and skills building to enhance the effectiveness of each program.

Those elements, complemented with the ability to "link, lever, and connect" actors and resources in order to transform the lives of girls led to impressive and lasting results. Consequently, unleashing the Girl Effect.