Opinion: Safe spaces can unlock girls’ potential — when we get it right

Young women at a girls club learn how to make a reusable low-cost menstrual pad. Mercy Corps supports girls clubs of about 20 members between the ages of 13 and 24. They provide a safe space to discuss main areas of concern for girls including health, hygiene, and gender-based violence. Photo by: Elizabeth Dalziel / Mercy Corps

Our world’s population is younger than ever before — nearly 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 are charting their way forward. Nine out of 10 live in less developed countries where they are often confronted with unprecedented social, economic, and cultural transitions.

And while adolescence is usually a period set aside for young people to gain the education, knowledge, and skills needed to shape a secure future, this isn’t a given in many communities around the world.

Think back to your younger years — was there someone in your life who encouraged you to take on challenges? Did you have a place where you could gather with friends and openly speak your mind or get information? You may be able to answer “yes” to one of these questions, but many young people are not so fortunate.

Safe spaces help fill this gap. These are spaces that provide a safe haven, whether under a tree in Niger or an empty classroom in Lebanon, for young people to regularly meet and connect with their peers and a mentor who supports them to build specific knowledge and skills. On this year’s International Youth Day, we celebrate the contributions and immense potential of young people and recognize safe spaces as a key strategy to empower them.

Safe spaces are especially important for girls.

Girls often lack access to quality education and health care, decision-making power, and the ability to make choices about their own lives. Safe spaces can provide them with an emotionally and physically safe environment to learn new things such as negotiation skills, literacy, and numeracy; vocational skills and financial literacy; how to manage menstrual hygiene; and the dangers of child marriage and early childbirth. They also can share their ideas with peers and trusted mentors.

For impactful safe spaces, here are five key strategies that we have drawn from our work with girls.

1. Include the most marginalized girls, even when it demands more time and resources

According to the Population Council, conventional programs designed for young people do not reach the most marginalized girls. If we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we cannot overlook the world’s 200 million poorest girls. The I’m Here approach, developed by the Women’s Refugee Commission and the Population Council, can help identify and include the most vulnerable adolescent girls in safe spaces.

The approach includes the girl roster tool, simple mobile technology to collect data on girls’ ages alongside their educational, marital, childbearing, and living-arrangement status. This helps organizations more effectively find and recruit marginalized girls, especially in humanitarian settings. And because local staff and mentors can assist with data collection, it is an opportunity for young people to advance their own skills.

2. Empower young women to act as mentors for adolescent girls in safe spaces 

Program mentors have often faced the same challenges as the girls they mentor. Investing in these young women is critical, and can include training in literacy and numeracy, and helping them cultivate a social network with other mentors. Mentors who have practical financial skills and experience increasing and diversifying their own incomes can act as influential role models for girls who have no experience earning or saving money.

Those with negotiation skills can speak on behalf of the girls they work with. In Niger, young women who act as mentors told us that they met with several families of girls to negotiate delayed marriages. They also reported more prestige in the community because of their new role working with girls.

3. Partner with girls

The best safe space programs do not simply “deliver” knowledge, they engage young people to be real partners in change. One tool that Mercy Corps and our global initiative GirlSPARKS use, is a creative and flexible methodology that allows us to listen to girls and learn from their experiences.

In these creative discussions, girls have a safe environment to share their hopes and dreams, create drawings that reflect their daily life, participate in visioning exercises, and talk about the challenges they face. They also enjoy meeting other girls their age and making new friends. These activities, in turn, inform program design and help us shape a positive path for girls in partnership with them.

4. Foster girls’ financial inclusion

Global evidence shows that linking girls to economic opportunities has many benefits, including reducing their risk of violence and delaying the onset of sexual activity. In the pastoral regions of Kenya and Uganda, Mercy Corps partners with adolescent girls to build their financial literacy, create savings groups, and learn the skills needed to manage goats, sheep, chickens, or bees.

Nearly 50 percent of safe space participants reported that they now access financial services such as savings groups and small capital grants, compared to only 16 percent at the start of the program. Savings groups increased girls’ participation in more formal community-based savings groups, which then increased their households’ overall access to these types of financial services. Contributing to their families’ food security also increased girls’ status in the household and their ability to make decisions.

In West Pokot, Kenya, 63 percent of girls reported an increased ability to make decisions, a 210 percent increase from the start of the program.

A meeting of an adolescent girls' safe space group. The girls meet twice a week with their mentor, a young woman from the community who talks to them about various topics including the value of education, financial management, and delaying marriage and child birth. Photo by: Sean Sheridan / Mercy Corps

5. Engage men and boys to support girls’ participation in safe spaces and promote more equitable gender norms

Educating men and boys, including community influencers, about the goals of safe spaces and the benefits of investing in girls is key to sustainable change.

In Niger, Mercy Corps implemented “husband schools” — an approach developed by the United Nations Population Fund — to educate young men on reproductive health, maternal health and nutrition, gender equity, and issues surrounding child marriage.

In Nigeria, we held “champion days” to publicly acknowledge men who supported girls’ education and participation in safe spaces. Involving men from the start and making them integral to the process is key to the success of safe spaces and girls’ empowerment.

International Youth Day provides a moment to reflect on the importance of safe spaces for young people. Let’s continue to ensure that young people have a place to build the skills, knowledge, and social networks needed to create safe and secure lives in which they thrive.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Amy Ibold

    Amy Ibold is a senior advisor on adolescent girls and youth for Mercy Corps. In this role, she supports Mercy Corps’ youth portfolio, spanning more than 25 countries, with a focus on programming that supports youth, and particularly adolescent girls, to secure the knowledge, skills, and social networks they need for successful lives and futures. Amy has 15 years of experience in initiatives that target adolescents and youth; foster gender equality; and improve rural development. She holds a master of science in rural sociology from the University of Missouri and a bachelor of arts in journalism from University of Oregon.
  • Anna James

    Anna James is an international development practitioner and writer based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Her work centers on the themes of gender integration, social inclusion, and resilience. Anna has 10 years of experience in international development, ranging from Peace Corps service in Morocco through consulting on gender and youth programs worldwide. After earning a M.A. in global human development from Georgetown University, she now applies her skills and experience to poverty alleviation domestically and internationally.