The Importance of Girls’ Voices During Emergencies… here’s how we listened

How do you continue to centre on girls’ lived experiences during a global pandemic? Just over a year ago, facing restrictions on our ability to physically reach girls, we didn’t quite have the answer but knew too well from girls’ experiences during the Ebola outbreak that we needed to figure it out, and we needed to figure it out fast! At the same time, we were breathing life into a girl-centred radio drama and talkshow, Karo Kura Konection and Kompin, a critical component of our emergency response that delivered information to girls, challenged how girls are seen and treated in society, and sparked girls imagination with girls living into their full power.

As part of our emergency response, we put smartphones in the hands of a network of 700 young women mentors across Sierra Leone. This decision allowed us to push information to mentors and girls but also opened up possibilities for us to hear directly from mentors and girls during this time.

How did we put this into practice?

We selected a data collection platform that worked for the context

KoBo Toolbox is a free, open-source platform for mobile data collection, which was, and continues to be, our main method of collecting data and information from mentors. We were already using KoBo with partners to collect basic project data and it proved intuitive to use, had offline functionality and came with no cost — so the decision to use Kobo with mentors was an easy one.

Our amazing team set up and configured every one of the 700 phones with both WhatsApp and the KoBo application — KoBoCollect — before we distributed the phones to mentors via partners around the country.

We rapidly designed a data collection tool

Distributing the phones across Sierra Leone was the absolute priority at the start of our response and we knew we would increase our chances of hearing from mentors exponentially if we could download the form onto their Kobo app before the phones were distributed.

So we worked rapidly to develop and test our data collection form, not knowing exactly what we wanted to know but knowing that we could not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We used WhatsApp to do some rapid testing with mentors, inviting a small number into a WhatsApp group to review the questions via voice notes and messages so we could adapt it a little before rolling it out en masse.

We delivered training remotely via video, audio and text

Yes, Kobo is intuitive but for many of the mentors, this was the first time they ever held a smartphone and with minimal support from partners, we had to help them navigate this asset and the applications remotely. WhatsApp became a critical way of communicating with mentors and was a key training platform for our emergency response.

Training and induction videos were created in local languages and shared directly with mentors via WhatsApp — we covered everything from how to open the KoBo application to downloading, completing and uploading forms through these videos. We also created a dedicated video on the data collection tool itself, explaining each question in detail.

We trusted mentors

Putting smartphones in the hands of mentors comes with inherent risks and concerns, but this is also a question of redistributing power assets to girls. We believe and trust in mentors and girls and know that shifting resources and power to them is critical to their ability to resist. As part of this, we trusted that mentors would send us reports when they could, and they did. At the height of the emergency period in Sierra Leone, we heard from over 400 mentors on a weekly basis and through them, the girls in their clubs.

When many of us were confined to our homes, be it in Freetown, Seattle or London, mentors shared stories and girls’ voices directly with us. We learned what girls liked about the radio drama and the issues they struggled with, this information was shared in real time with our script writers and production team who adapted the story lines and language of the radio drama and talk show in line with the feedback. Mentors shared their own challenges during the rainy season, which allowed us to adapt and repeat the radio drama, knowing that many mentors and girls had missed sessions when the rains were at their heaviest. Mentors told us that the radios we sent them weren’t working very well and they were using their phones to play the radio drama and talk show but that the sound wasn’t loud enough, so we responded by procuring and distributing bluetooth speakers this year. We used everything we heard to respond better to mentors’ and girls’ needs.

Mentors also shared girls’ stories of resistance — resisting early marriage, violence and, in some cases, FGM. Stories of friendship and solidarity. Stories of hope and inspiration.

What would we do differently next time?

Putting smartphones in the hands of mentors allowed us to reach girls during an emergency period in ways which would never have been possible, while also protecting our partners and team. Did we face challenges? Yes, but would we do it again? Absolutely, but here are a few things we might do differently:

  • Be realistic about the scale of data we could handle: Keen to hear from mentors as much as possible, we started off by asking mentors to submit weekly reports, the response was impressive but soon became overwhelming for our small team and we moved to monthly reports.
  • Prioritise and scale back our data collection tool: Because we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to know when we first rolled out the data collection tool, we included too many questions, if we were doing it again, we’d narrow down the questions and be tougher on ourselves, really thinking about the need to know vs. nice to know.
  • Buy phone covers and screen protectors: This seems obvious and is something we did retrospectively but when you’re in an emergency situation, you just want to get the phones out.
  • Anticipate apps expiring: A training video that we are now working on is how to update an app when it expires. On android phones, this isn’t intuitive and was a particular challenge around WhatsApp.

Today, we continue to use Kobo with mentors. We hear from nine out of every ten mentors in this way and we are constantly working to increase this number. As Sierra Leone experiences its third wave of Covid-19, we now have the foundations to continue to reach girls when they need support the most.

This work has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

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