Young girl in Nepal

A UK-funded programme to support out-of-school girls in low-income countries has significantly enhanced their learning, confidence, opportunities and prospects, a new report says. However, sustained, strategic and targeted investment will be needed to preserve these gains.

It is clear that we cannot just switch the support pipeline off for marginalised girls, and expect all those good results to be sustained

Pauline Rose

The observations come from an evaluation of 14 projects across 10 countries in Africa and South Asia developed under the ‘Leave No Girl Behind’ (LNGB) initiative, launched in 2016. LNGB is part of the broader Girls’ Education Challenge, run by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

The programme targets the most marginalised girls through structured interventions aimed at improving their academic skills and life chances. Collectively, these have aimed to reach 230,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19. The girls involved tend to come from very poor backgrounds. Many have married early, are teenage mothers, or have disabilities. All have either never attended school or dropped out early.

The new analysis is the latest in a series of reports evaluating the impact of the UK’s recent, targeted support for the world’s least-advantaged girls in general. It was undertaken by a collaboration led by the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge. The research assessed the outcomes of the LNGB projects for more than 17,000 adolescent girls, complementing this with case studies from projects in Ghana, Kenya, and Nepal.

The verdict is broadly positive. As well as enhancing basic literacy and numeracy skills, LNGB initiatives were found to have improved the girls’ life skills and well-being. Participants often displayed greater confidence and increased self-esteem. This enabled them to have more control over decisions relating to their education and work choices. Girls further reflected on how their future aspirations had changed for the better.

Despite this, the researchers highlight several ongoing challenges. Even after participating in an LNGB programme, many girls still encountered significant economic challenges and deep-rooted gender and social norms, which acted as barriers to their education and career development. With the Girls’ Education Challenge concluding in 2024, the report emphasises the need to engage a range of stakeholders in both LNGB projects and equivalent future initiatives, to identify ways to provide sustained support to tackle barriers that the most marginalised girls will continue to face into the future.

Dr Asma Zubairi, who was part of the REAL Centre’s evaluation team, said: “Leave No Girl Behind did a great job of providing more holistic support than many comparable interventions. Based on feedback from the girls themselves, however, it is clear that when the support stops, the same old problems resurface. There are some profound economic and social issues at play.”

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the REAL Centre, said: “As we approach the end of the Girls’ Education Challenge, we need to consider what comes next. What Leave No Girl Behind has achieved is really impressive, but there are also lessons to learn. In particular, it is clear that we cannot just switch the support pipeline off for marginalised girls, and expect all those good results to be sustained.”

A hallmark of the LNGB projects was their holistic approach to supporting girls in both their education and livelihood journeys. Beyond improving academic skills, such as basic literacy and numeracy, they also charted a ‘pathway’ for each girl’s future: guiding them towards work opportunities, skills training, or back into formal schooling.

Girls and families were often given money or in-kind support to facilitate this. In Ghana, for instance, the families of girls resuming school received one year of financial aid; elsewhere, girls starting businesses were given start-up kits or funding.

Interviews with the girls, families and community members consistently suggested they emerged as confident, independent problem-solvers; while the life-skills training introduced them to topics such as contraception and tackling gender-based violence, of which some were previously unaware. One, speaking about the Aarambha project in Nepal, said it “taught us about contraceptive methods to not give birth to a child…. I did not know anything like that before [and] I learned it after coming to the community learning centre”.

The report identifies a ‘virtuous’ circle for many girls who entered employment because they often contributed directly to their communities through their work. In Kenya, for example, some girls who trained in tailoring ended up supplying school uniforms to their local area. This increased respect from their families and peers, which added to their overall sense of empowerment and wellbeing.

Despite these positives, there is evidence that societal attitudes remain a formidable hurdle for many of the girls to participate in education. Social expectations also diverted some from their chosen paths following the programme. Older adolescent girls, for example, were seen as too old to return to education and project facilitators noted they potentially faced ridicule if they tried.

In addition, not all girls were able to pursue pathways that matched their preferences. About one-quarter of girls who pursued work-related pathways had originally expressed a preference for formal education but were dissuaded from pursuing it. Moreover, many of the girls following a work-related pathway were pushed towards a limited list of occupations deemed ‘appropriate’ for women, such as tailoring and hairdressing.

The report cites the case of Ayaan, a 20-year-old mother from Kenya who had originally dropped out of primary school. After joining an LNGB programme, Ayaan wanted to study chemistry, but was considered too old for formal education. She then opted to train as an electrician, only for her husband to reject this as “a man’s vocation”: “They [project in Kenya] told us that only the young kids have the option to go back to school….and my husband refused me to do electrician because he said that it is for men.” Ayaan ended up opening a business selling nuts, charcoal and clothing: a success on paper, but not when measured against her own dreams.

The evaluation identifies other structural problems. Not all employers, for example, recognised the qualification girls received after graduating from the LNGB interventions, leaving some feeling “underappreciated and stuck with a useless certificate,” according to one interviewee involved in the implementation of an LNGB project in Zimbabwe.

Despite having initial financial backing, girls and families often struggled to afford school or sustain business ventures once the funding ended. In Kenya, about 20% of graduates from the training pathway remained jobless; 39% on the entrepreneurship pathway started businesses that subsequently failed. Societal prejudices sometimes intersected with this: in Kenya there were accounts of men destroying their wives’ sewing machines to stop them from working.

The report emphasises that future projects will need to collaborate closely with a wide range of stakeholders from inception. These are likely to include governments and NGOs. Such partnerships, the researchers argue, enhance the prospects of girls receiving ongoing, cross-sector support, which is essential for prolonged success.

A host of other recommendations include ensuring that future projects are of sufficient length to enable girls to master the skills they are being taught (which was not consistently true of the LNGB interventions); more comprehensive career guidance to prevent girls being limited to the same handful of occupations; and ties with microfinance to help those who start their own businesses.

“Well-structured interventions like the LNGB projects naturally draw in other entities to help marginalised girls,” Rose said. “They could do so even more strategically. A single education aid project cannot reverse societal or economic constraints by itself, but it can lay the groundwork for a broader approach sustained by others, long after the original project comes to an end.”

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