empowering adolescent girls

– Rwanda

What are the challenges?

The government of Rwanda set out a bold and ambitious agenda to achieve middle-income status by the year 2020. However, at most levels of society, women remain distinctly vulnerable due to a variety of factors, including low literacy rates, low secondary school completion rate, high rates of domestic violence, and lower earnings and economic opportunities than men.

 The sharp differentiation in treatment, expectations, opportunities, and access to resources for adolescent girls during childhood and adolescence shapes their life trajectories in numerous ways. Just as adolescent boys are given more freedom and opportunity, the lives of adolescent girls become more constrained and confined in terms of opportunity, resources, mobility, and life choices. As a result, adolescent girls are stuck in a cycle that reinforces a life of poverty, stress, and limitation.

This is particularly so in the northern and western districts of Rwanda, where Firelight’s CBO grantee-partners were located. Communities in this region have been impacted not only by the genocide, HIV, and acute poverty, but also by instability at the borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

How are our CBO grantee-partners helping?


Our CBO grantee-partners work with the most vulnerable girls in Gisenyi, Rwanda – located right at the border with the DRC – those with disabilities, those who live on the street, those who have been forced into sex work, and those who are very young parents. Of the young women (ages 11 to 24) our CBO grantee-partners worked with, over 60% were mothers, about 98% have not completed secondary school, and over 80% do not have more than one proper meal a day.

Our CBO grantee-partners are operating on the principle that when young women are empowered, they can rely on themselves to take care of their own needs and the needs of their children and families. Their theory of change is that when you help young women to develop their confidence, agency, and skills you open them up to new opportunities, and to link them to resources and networks which enable long-term success.

All six of Firelight’s grantee-partner organizations have a focus on economic empowerment, including vocational training, financial and business management, start-up loans, and sustainable farming for the young women in their communities. Some of our grantee-partner organizations provide seed funding for women to start their own businesses, while others train women to use recycled materials to make mats and bags, which are then sold to hotels, with the profits being reinvested into continued tailoring courses and eventual businesses for the women. For those adolescent girls who wish to return to formal school, our CBO grantee-partners support their school fees and monitor their academic performance.

In addition, all six organizations are ensuring the young women they work with are well-educated about sexual and reproductive health issues. Sharing knowledge about the reproductive system and how diseases are transmitted is actively helping to prevent HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and unplanned pregnancies. Firelight’s CBO grantee-partners have likewise connected with nearby health centers to provide voluntary counseling and testing and reproductive health services to the young women.  

Our CBO grantee-partners are also ensuring that women receive counseling and social support in the form of peer groups and community mentors. Many of these young women have experienced great difficulties in their early lives, including losing parents to the Rwandan genocide or to AIDS. Our CBO grantee-partners are not only working to help young women realize their inner strength, resiliency, and potential, but also working to build their outer strength by linking them to each other and to other support systems in the community.

How is Firelight helping?


Our aim with this grantee cluster has been to build the capacity these local community-based organizations to run and document effective, replicable, and potentially scalable holistic girls’ empowerment programs that will support vulnerable young women and shift their economic, educational, and social outcomes in the long-term. Of the six grantee-partners we also supported Action pour le Développement du Peuple (ADEPE) to be a Community Grantmaker to the other five, building their capacity to support the other smaller. We have been working with ADEPE to focus on strengthening the capacity of the smaller CBOs in girl-centered programming and in organizational development areas such as financial management and monitoring and evaluation.

 This grantee cluster was a direct extension from Firelight’s previous work in girl-centered capacity building for local organizations. From 2006 to 2014 Firelight was part of the Grassroots Girls Initiative, which was a partnership of six funders that believe grassroots organizations are uniquely qualified to deliver solutions for the most underserved girls in the communities where they work. Our focus was on deeply marginalized and vulnerable girls in parts of Rwanda and Malawi but evolved to focus exclusively on addressing the depth of challenges in rural Rwanda.

What has the impact been?

In 2016 and 2017, we conducted a comprehensive survey of girls in the program to evaluate gains in their personal, social, and financial assets. We saw incredible results from our grantee-partners’ work: 

  • 57% increase in girls’ ownership of a business, which allows them to save and plan for the future

  • 322% increase in girls’ ownership of livestock, which allows them to have a sustainable source of income and pass on livestock offspring to other vulnerable girls

  • 51% increase in girls’ membership in a business cooperative or collective

  • 33% increase in knowledge of how save and use money effectively

  • 39% increase in skills to earn an income

  • 125% increase in girls owning their own money, which allows them to meet their basic needs and those of their families – houses, clothing, health insurance, food

  • 45% increase in girls knowing how to take care of their health, including sexual and reproductive health

  • 44% increase in self-confidence

  • 64% increase in ability to reach out to a non-family member if experiencing harassment

  • 16% increase in ability to speak up if being treated badly or unkindly

While these gains were essential, CBOs also reported shifts in community mindsets – more parents valuing their girls’ education, more community knowledge of sexual and reproductive health (especially from girls disseminating these lessons to other girls and community members), and more girls having the confidence and financial resources to care for themselves and their children.

How are we planning for the future?

Through this initiative, we have built the capacity of our CBO grantee-partners to develop effective, scalable and potentially replicable programs that are responsive to adolescent girls, helping these girls to build sustainable businesses while also addressing the whole range of the gender-based challenges they face. ADEPE, through its enablement as a Community Grantmaker, will continue to be an important local role model and enabler to other community-based organizations in the future.  These CBOs have already reported direct increases in their own capacities due to the one-on-one, tailored support from ADEPE and from Firelight Program staff.

 Likewise, we have created a sustainable social network of young women in northern Rwanda who face similar challenges and who will now have the skills, capital, confidence, and capacity to overcome them together. We believe that this network model and this type of community-based programming for adolescent girls is also potentially scalable by additional community organizations themselves or by government across Rwanda.


Communities in action

We hear about it all the time and we know it to be true – when you empower a girl, you empower her family, her community and the world around her. The young women in Gisenyi have faced challenges and experienced 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.


Valentine’s life was deeply challenged by the death of her mother when she was a teenager. Her father had two wives and upon the death of Valentine’s mother, he evicted Valentine from her home and claimed her mother’s property. As the eldest child, she was left deeply vulnerable, and responsible for the care of her siblings. She felt that her only option was to get married – even though she was still very young. Now caring for an extended family, Valentine found solace through ADEPE, Firelight’s partner Community Grantmaker in Gisenyi. ADEPE awarded Valentine with a microloan and helped her open a bank account. She received training in running a small business and in financial management. With this new knowledge and her microloan, Valentine started a small business selling meat in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon she paid back her microloan and ADEPE worked with a local bank to secure her a larger loan, which she also paid back. She now owns a small store and is able to feed her family, pay for their health insurance and thrive.


After Solange’s parents died, the only way she could survive was to cross the border illegally from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Solange was taking a “short cut” – an illegal route – to buy and sell goods. Every young girl and woman who crosses the border in this way is vulnerable – they are pressured for sex by corrupt law enforcement officials and are made to pay an incredible price with their bodies or with their scarce cash in order to pass. It was a life of incredible challenge – the authorities beat them and confiscated their things. “I was lucky, because I was little and they didn’t demand sex from me.” Others were not so lucky. Many ended up with HIV or with children they never planned for and were too young to have. Solange was a participant in a Firelight-funded program in Gisenyi, Rwanda. With funds provided by Firelight and support from two local community organizations, Solange received a microloan, which she has already paid back, by selling clothes legitimately in a local women-run clothes market. Solange also received training in financial literacy and business development. Solange now earns enough money to provide for herself and to invest in her own future. “Now I feed myself without begging. Now I have value in the community.”