We’re in the middle of our biggest fundraiser of the year.
For this blog, we asked our Founder, Payton, to share some of the stories about the progress of S H E with you. We started with just 3 girls in the program in July 2017, and this year, we’re on our way to sponsoring 150 girls through their educations.
Why S H E matters
As you know, we wrapped up our first year of S H E with a trip to Togo in July. Though we have full-time staff in Togo, we continue to challenge ourselves by asking the tough question – Is S H E really creating positive impact? The short answer: Yes, but we’ve got a long way to go.
We’re so happy and proud to report that our girls are making huge strides in Notse. We don’t ever intend to take credit for the achievement of our girls, but we think it’s important for you, as our S H E supporters, to know what all of your support is creating in Togo. Payton shared her field notes to help us see some real examples of the momentum that’s being created by the girls of S H E.
Though S H E is just one year old, we’re already seeing tremendous progress with our girls. One of the main goals of my July trip was to gauge the success of our program, and figure out where we can make improvements to increase our impact. Working around women’s empowerment is a complicated beast because the metrics for success are not clearly defined, but some of the stories I heard and changes I witnessed are a tangible way to see that S H E is accomplishing our goal of helping girls determine their own future, step by step.
At 22 years old, Aicha had failed her Junior year of high school 3 years in a row, but when I first asked her to be part of the program, I didn’t realize her situation was so bad. I listened to her tell me that her sister had severe mental and physical disabilities, her mother was the sole provider for her family, and her father was about to sell her mother’s farm- leaving her family without any property or income source. It was no wonder she wasn’t performing well in school. Aicha wanted to be an ambassador to the program, but in order to do that, I told her we needed her to commit to her studies, improve her grades, and be an example to our younger students.
Aicha worked with Madam Manou throughout the year as an ambassador. She enrolled in a private school (because she was no longer eligible to attend public school) and focused hard on school. When I arrived in Notse, Madam showed me Aicha’s report card with such pride. After a few explanations of the Togolese grading system, Madam finally told me that Aicha was the top female student in her class, and she was beaming.
Aicha’s accomplishments are all a result of her hard work, but it’s amazing to see that the encouragement, structure, and accountability of the S H E program can help make such a drastic transformation in her life.
Another time I saw subtle, yet significant progress was during a simple activity Kirsten organized. During some of our first interactions with the girls, we struggled to break through their hesitance to communicate with their ‘authority figures’. To help break down this barrier, we wrote a few simple questions on a beach ball. Some of the questions were “I am most happy when…” “When I grow up, I want to be…” or “My favorite food is…”. But we mixed in more serious questions like “It makes me sad when…” or “I notice that girls can’t go to school when…” or “I’m afraid that…”
In Togolese culture, vulnerabilities and reflections are not shared. There’s almost no space where girls have the opportunity to talk about their fears, strengths, or ambitions. So the goal of this activity was to start creating a culture at S H E where sharing your vulnerabilities isn’t scary, and you know you’re free from judgment.
We separated the young students from the older students because we knew the younger girls wouldn’t feel totally free to speak their truths with older girls present. And I was amazed at the young girls’ ability to reflect and share their vulnerabilities. Our students shared about having to go to school hungry on many occasions, being afraid that they won’t be able to continue school, or sad when their family members get sick.
At the end of the exercise we had everyone answer the same question,
“When I grow up, I want to be a _____”.
Normally, when we’ve asked questions about their dreams or talents, we get very similar answers from each girl. Most girls used to want to become hairdressers, seamstresses, sellers at the markets, or jewelry makers – all professions where the average education level is 2 to 3 years. Madam explained to us that “girls don’t dream of becoming seamstresses, they fall in to it because their families don’t have the means to send them to school”.
This July, every S H E girl dreamed of a career that requires an education. They wanted to be police women, engineers, nurses, teachers, army officials, doctors, and lawyers. This may seem like an odd example of ‘empowerment’, but I assure you this is a level of perceived potential among our girls beyond anything we’ve seen before in our conversations.
To the amazing young women of S H E, thank you for giving this year your all, for having the courage to try something new, and for being such a positive example to girls all over the world. Words cannot express how proud I am of how hard you have worked this year, and how much you have grown as a result. My hope for you is that with the lessons you’ve learned at S H E, the skills you are continuing to develop, and the fierce creativity you have always possessed, you will transform your communities and continue to make the world a better place. We often talk about the importance of defining empowerment, and though it may look very different for each of you, the mark of a truly empowered woman is one who will turn to empower others. So my request of you is that you continue to share your light with your fellow sisters and brothers, because you have inspired me more than you will ever know. Congratulations to each of you. You’ve accomplished so very much. Please remember to take a moment, every once in a while, to honor yourself and your achievements.
– Payton’s speech | S H E graduation class of 2018
Lessons Learned from Year 1
The first year of our program was overwhelmingly positive, but like any startup organization, we’ve experienced a few set backs and we’ve learned A LOT along the way. Because you’ve been on this path with us from the very beginning, you know that we think vulnerability and failure is a part of our empowerment journey that we should embrace.
1. Team work really does make the dream work.
We REALLY struggled to find the right local staff in Togo to support S H E. We had 3 office managers in our first year of operation, and are you ready for the next cliché? The third time was the charm. When we lost our second office manager, we promoted Madam Manou from Chief Seamstress to S H E – Program Coordinator, and she turned the program in a completely positive direction. She gained partnerships with 1. the local hospital, library, and continues to recruit new girls in need to the program. The girls call her “mama” and she’s helped the girls identify their strengths and promote girls’ education in their village.
2. Empowerment requires a holistic approach.
Our story started with the simple idea of teaching girls to sew their own uniforms to go to school, but we quickly realized that wasn’t enough. We started noticing that the girls weren’t taking to the training because they lacked the confidence to try something new. We’re continually evolving the program to meet the changing needs of our students, but we’ve started to see that a balanced focus on resources, skill set, confidence and creativity creates the greatest breakthroughs.
3. Message matters.
The paradigm for foreign aid is that nonprofits are there to provide a hand-out, not a hand-up. Because we think it’s counterintuitive to our mission of empowerment for girls to think they’re selected for S H E because their experiencing poverty, we constantly reiterate that our girls were carefully selected because we believe in their abilities to positively impact the world. We think of S H E as a scholarship program where girls are selected for sponsorship based on a variety of criteria – financial need being just one of them.
This year, we’re very carefully crafting our message to restore a sense of agency and dignity to the girls selected for the program. Our girls should feel like they are selected for the
program for positive reasons and attributes that they’ve cultivated, not the financial circumstance of their family that they have no control over.
It’s a constant experiment and adjustment in our messaging because really are no previous examples of programs like S H E in our village of Notse. We’ll keep you posted.
I’ll leave you with this. We’ve had big ups this year, and we’re overcoming minor set backs. But one thing is for sure, our work is only just beginning.
For every story of small progress, there’s another story that reminds us why it’s more important than ever for us to keep doing this work.
One of our students – 12 years old – was sponsored for the first year of our program. She is doing well in school, and attends our meetings regularly, but her father is in the process of searching for someone to marry her. Madam Manou has had multiple meetings with her father to try to convince him to educate his daughter. Even though there are no expenses associated with his daughter’s education (S H E pays for everything) in his eyes, she’s not worth it. She continues to come to our meetings and tells Manou that her education is the only thing she wants, but we have very little power over a situation like this.
That’s why it’s so important for us to have moments like we did at the graduation ceremony. Two male authorities gave impromptu speeches at the ceremony to emphasize to parents how important it is to keep their daughters in school. They explained in many ways how time and time again, families and countries that commit to educating their women see the greatest improvements to standards of living.
Madam Manou does so much work behind the scenes, and she speaks with all of our parents about the benefits of educating their daughters, but sometimes, it takes even more convincing.