Too often, adolescents and their parents are unequipped to deal with the rapid transformation of adolescence – a critical period when young people navigate the physical and emotional changes of puberty while they assume adult roles and responsibilities. Adolescents’ ability to develop positive relationships and make healthy choices during this time is heavily influenced by social norms – the rules of behavior that are established by what their parents, peers, family, and other respected community members say and do. Very young adolescence (10-14 years) is an opportune time to provide information and build practical skills before children become sexually active and internalize gender roles.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the need for support is high. 17% of girls report having sex before 15 years of age and 27% of 15-19 year olds have already begun childbearing. In urban Kinshasa, specific, vulnerable populations – like the 16% of school-age children who are out-of-school – are at even higher risk of gender-based violence, STIs, and pregnancy compared to their in-school peers.
Growing up GREAT! (known locally as Kokoma Malamu) is a dynamic new intervention addressing these challenges in the Masina and Kimbanseke communes of Kinshasa. The program is implemented by Save the Children through the global Passages Project, led by the Institute for Reproductive Health. Growing up GREAT! uses an ecological approach to target in-school and out-of-school very young adolescents (VYAs) and the social groups that most affect their early life experiences and decision-making.
For VYAs, a suite of materials provides information and prompts discussion about puberty, gender equality, healthy relationships, violence, and other related themes during weekly club sessions. For parents, group sessions featuring six testimonial videos foster discussion around non-violent parenting, equal sharing of household tasks, and girls’ education. Other materials for teachers, health workers, and community members complement the core toolkit materials.
Growing Up GREAT! launched with 400 out-of-school adolescents in July 2017. Program activities will continue for nine months. VYAs have welcomed the new program with excitement. “Now I know that girls and boys can both help with household chores. It’s not just a task for girls,” said Thérèse, an 11-year-old out-of-school girl. Isaac, a 12-year-old out-of-school boy, said, “I learned that when I get older, I will have wet dreams. They explained that I shouldn’t be scared, it’s a natural body change that shows I am beginning to grow up.”
Implementing a program with this young age group can be challenging. Using a variety of research methods will allow us to document the implementation process, note successes and opportunities for improvement, and make changes along the way. Earlier this year, we piloted the intervention in 40 schools to gather rapid feedback on preparation and rollout of program activities. We assessed the pilot through monitoring data, a qualitative evaluation with focus group discussions and in-depth interviews, and a series of learning meetings that brought together stakeholders to identify lessons learned, successes and, recommendations for adjustments.
Regular supervision visits offer another chance for learning. Our recent visits to out-of-school clubs revealed additional insights:
- Program implementers must encourage active participation among girls and boys: Older girls are hesitant to actively participate in activities compared to younger girls, or boys of any age. During the pilot, partner organizations primarily focused on ensuring equal enrollment of girls and boys in mixed-sex clubs and leadership positions (for school-based clubs led by trained VYAs.) Their ongoing role now will be to ensure that girls and boys have equal voice and engagement by paying attention to group dynamics and building capacity of VYA leaders.
- Building in flexibility may increase girls’ attendance. Many girls have a heavy burden of household responsibilities. Our experience shows that this is a common reason for missed sessions. Providing an adaptable environment to accommodate this reality may help mitigate poor attendance. During the sessions we observed, some girls arrived late, and a few brought younger siblings, but all participated actively while they were there.
- Skilled facilitators are essential. While VYAs identify with the information and stories in the materials, facilitators “creuse” or delve deeper on participant responses to bring out key messages. Doing so encourages the critical reflection and dialogue that fosters normative change. Our site visit underlined the importance of additional probing questions from facilitators to solidify the take-home messages of the VYA game.
- Parent/caretaker involvement and acceptance are crucial. Parents and caretakers are key influences in VYAs’ lives. Their approval of the program is essential to ensure that children are permitted – and hopefully encouraged – to attend club sessions and explore their puberty books. Save the Children will engage parents via several new pathways in the coming months to secure their involvement.
Growing up Great! will launch 40 new clubs with 1,000 in-school adolescents this month. Sessions will continue through the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, along with parent, school and community activities. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Global Early Adolescent Study will evaluate the intervention with a longitudinal survey. Stay tuned for baseline findings in 2018!