Lessons Learned from Implementing SHE’s GREAT! in Seven Countries
It takes intention and care to engage youth on challenging topics like gender-based violence (GBV). Through implementing SHE’s GREAT! in seven countries, IREX learned three key takeaways to bolster the creation of a holistically safe and inclusive environment for young people.
SHE’s GREAT! is a program funded by the US Department of State’s Secretary’s Office for Global Women’s Issues and implemented by IREX. SHE’s GREAT! was launched as a girls’ learning and empowerment program featuring a problem-based learning curriculum that empowered participants through science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) and life skills’ training to address issues of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and harmful cultural practices.
SHE’s GREAT! engaged over 2,200 youth during the life of the project. The program's innovative three phase model - consisting of the Gender and My Community curriculum, STEAM Camps, and youth-led Community Action Projects - was implemented nine times in six countries: the Kyrgyz Republic, Jordan, Georgia, St. Lucia, Guatemala, and Ukraine between 2018 and 2023. Through IREX’s commitment to adaptive learning, sustainability, and respect for local expertise, SHE’s GREAT! has consistently improved its activities to expose youth leaders to new opportunities and link them to a global network of peers and mentors. The program ultimately garners participants greater support by fostering more equitable and inclusive communities.
The following lessons were learned through direct feedback from youth, focus groups with parents and caregivers, and engagements with our local implementing partners. They aim to support youth development practitioners to improve their holistic engagement with youth (and their families and communities) to invest in more inclusive, safe, and sustainable futures.
1. Holistic & Intentional Mental Health and Psychosocial Support is needed!
When designing and implementing gender empowerment and gender-based violence prevention programming with youth, IREX recommends an overarching, yet interconnected psychosocial support approach. As youth are starting to explore and unpack complex issues that impact themselves, their families, and communities it is important to incorporate psychosocial support into program activities. By increasing levels of MHPSS support with each new round of implementation of SHE’s GREAT!, IREX learned that the supplemental support sessions were impactful and meaningful to youth, and they began to seek additional support once they knew the services were available. Therefore, as the supply of psychosocial support available to participants increased, the demand for support increased.
In the first round of implementation in the Kyrgyz Republic, IREX’s local implementing partner, Youth of Osh, suggested including meditation and art therapy sessions in the Learning Festival (an activity that celebrates the completion of the Gender and My Community Curriculum). As a result, the team witnessed the benefits of using psychotherapeutic techniques with youth as an opportunity to mitigate distress and create a safe space during the larger program events. The team noticed participants were more open in expressing their feelings and thoughts after the psychotherapeutic techniques.
After this experience, we included psychosocial support more intentionally throughout the program by hiring two psychologists in both Guatemala and Saint Lucia to provide group and one-on-one counselling sessions to reduce psychological distress and promote the well-being of the participants. When more services were provided, more participants requested the one-on-one sessions in both countries.
When implementing for a second time in Jordan, Georgia, and the Kyrgyz Republic, IREX worked with partners to further increase mental health and psychosocial support. SHE’s GREAT! participants reported that both group and individual sessions were effective in leading to wellbeing and emotional stability. The topics discussed in the psychologist-hosted group sessions ranged from positive thinking and setting positive goals in life to emotional intelligence and the ability to create trusting relationships with others.
Based on the positive results of integrating psychologists and psychosocial support directly into program activities, projects should include mental health and psychosocial support from qualified psychologists, therapists, and counselors.
2. Engaging parents & caregivers is key!
The engagement of parents and caregivers to support youth participants of gender empowerment and gender-based violence prevention programming is critical. As youth are exploring new topics and need a wider eco-system to discuss and comprehend how they impact themselves and their families, IREX recommends integrating parents and caregivers more profoundly and holistically throughout the duration of programs. In all countries of implementation when parents and caregivers were engaged, they offered great feedback and wanted to be more involved with programming overall.
During the first round of implementation in the Kyrgyz Republic, IREX and partner organization Youth of Osh learned that parents and caregivers are generally open to cooperation but are hesitant to take on additional responsibilities. Online meetings were held due to COVID restrictions to update parents and caregivers on program activities and both parents and caregivers, abroad and local, were eager to track their child's progress. Likewise, in Jordan, due to similar restrictions, many parents and caregivers accompanied their children in the online sessions. Because of this, IREX heard feedback that parents and caregivers wanted to be more involved in their children’s experience in the program.
Another strong component of SHE’s GREAT! was the implementation of the training on non-violent parenting methods, designed in collaboration with Youth of Osh. The training received positive feedback from caregivers and their children, as their relationships became stronger through the opportunity to discuss topics like non-violent education, non-violent communication, effective communication within families, and reflect on what type of caregiver or child they are.
Based on these experiences, IREX recommends programs thoughtfully engage parents and caregivers, as they are key in creating safe and inclusive environments for their children at home and supporting their aspirations for their future.
3. Bolstering partners’ knowledge and expertise of safeguarding
IREX recommends that activities focused on improving local partner capacity and policies regarding safeguarding be prioritized in programming for youth. As part of programming, donors and implementers should commit to developing and incorporating safeguarding policies and trainings for all local partners. Not only is this critical to ensuring the safety of participants and stakeholders, but it contributes to building a safer environment for youth in future programs.
Since the SHE’s GREAT! project involves working with youth and vulnerable adults, prevention from sexual exploitation and abuse and safeguarding are a key aspect, not only at the IREX level, but at the implementing partner level. When selecting implementing partners in each country, partners who did not have a policy to prevent sexual exploitation were not eliminated, rather through the risk and safeguarding assessments, were given opportunities to develop policies and train staff.
Prior to start up in each country, IREX trained each local implementing partner on the SHE’s GREAT! Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Safeguarding Policy and through the risk and safeguarding assessments, defined areas of their organization from policy to implementation that could be strengthened. Throughout the lifetime of the project, many partners either created an organizational safeguarding policy, adapted their policy, or worked IREX’s Trauma-informed Care GESI Advisor, to train the staff on the safeguarding topics.
For example, Youth of Osh created their own Safeguarding Policy because of the training provided by IREX after the first round of implementation. Additionally, other partners worked with IREX to review and update their employee handbook, in specific areas such as whistleblower policies, internal reporting mechanisms, and prohibition of all forms of violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination.
IREX recommends taking the time to train local partners on preventing sexual exploitation and safeguarding, conduct risk and safeguarding assessments of their organization and context, and bolster their existing safeguarding methods to ensure they protect young people and vulnerable adults involved in the program specifically, as well as stakeholders involved in partners’ broader work outside of the program.