Authors: Chad McCordic – Program Director, Brima Lansana – Senior Community Action Coordinator
When OneVillage Partners works with community members to develop projects, we use an adaption of Human Centered Design, a methodology that puts the real life, human experience at the core of project development. Fundamental to this is the focus on a “user,” or the intended target of the project. By focusing on the experience of this “user,” it encourages those developing the project to ask themselves: How does this project impact that particular “user’s” wellbeing? How can we use the user’s experience to make this project more impactful? If you look closely at any of our projects, you’ll see that all details have been tailored to the particular user that the group decided to focus the project on. It’s the reason why the locks on latrine doors are lower in Gbeka, so that kids can open the door more easily.
This month, in Yandohun, the Human Centered Design workshops have been focusing on access to quality education, which was voted by everyone there as the current priority focus. Many parents saw the troubling high school drop out rate, particularly of girls and felt that the problem was beyond their ability to change. However, others believed the solution lay in their hands. Brima Mambu, a community volunteer recalled that for years an “atmosphere of blame game” among parents had been undermining girls’ education in their community.
When the Community Action Group volunteers in Yandohun were researching the problem, they identified their core problem as “a high rate of school drop-out,’’ and the most affected group, or “user,” as teenage girls. In order to understand and analyze the core problem, the community volunteers used a problem tree, enabling them to identify some of the root causes to the increased dropout.
Teenage girls in Yandohun face significant challenges in accessing quality education. Most girls who start high school do not graduate. Many parents can barely pull together basic tuition, much less safe accommodation for their daughters. This is crucial, as Yandohun does not have a nearby secondary school, so in order to pay for the education of their children, parents also need to be able to provide them with a safe place to stay. While being far away from the social safety net of their village, young girls from Yandohun are vulnerable in big cities. It’s a daunting challenge.
Two young girls from Yandohun who had dropped out of high school were invited to help OneVillage Partners staff and the community volunteers in Yandohun to better understand these challenges and better shape the current project. The girls had just begun secondary school when they dropped out; one is 15 and the other is 16. These girls also helped highlight another challenge faced here: one has a child, the other is pregnant. Yandohun is a community of 850 people. Of 31 adolescent girls who have dropped out of high school in the last two years in Yandohun, 21 of them are either pregnant or already have children. Both girls plainly told the group that they did not believe they would go back to school. They did not see a future where they would be able to finish their education.
They told stories of failing classes because of abuse; of being manipulated because they didn’t know any better; of not understanding relationships and sex; of being forced out of class because they couldn’t afford tuition that semester; of yearning to return home but having to do so with shame and disappointment. One girl spoke of a lack of parental support that led to her feeling abandoned. She soon became a mother at the age of sixteen. In the workshop with the Community Action Group, she said she encouraged all girls in a similar situation to be more determined and to reach out to the entire community with one message: “We are now mothers because of neglect, but with their support we are ready to go back to school.”
By opening themselves up to the immediate, real life experience of these girls, OneVillage Partners and the Yandohun volunteers were able to understand the challenge holistically. The contributions from these girls fueled the discussion about how to solve this problem. Participants brainstormed ideas such as: structural and academic improvements to their local primary school; better academic preparation for girls entering junior and senior secondary school through specialized classes led by volunteer tutors from Yandohun; more consultations with parents about the social challenges for their girls; a sex education class for girls before they leave for school in September; and a more robust school management committee.
Over the next few months, OneVillage Partners will continue to refine these solutions alongside Yandohun volunteers, community members, and these girls, to create a sustainable project that supports the girls of Yandohun to better prepare themselves for a prosperous future. This adaption of Human Centered Design allows OneVillage Partners to analyze broad social challenges, while still focusing on the intimate real life experiences from users. This better equips us and our partners to bring about change, even if it seems that the change needed is beyond our reach. Brima Mambu, a Community Action Group member in Yandohun, summed it up, “We as a community need to encourage and support young women better, no matter what. We all have a duty to do this for the good of our community.”