On Friday 10 June, the 2022 Professional Fellowship programme focused on Girls’ Education came to a close. 29 Professional Fellows from 11 Commonwealth countries have spent the last three months in the UK as part of this programme, learning from this year’s five host organisations, collaborating with one another, and delving into the breadth of issues affecting the education of girls in different parts of the world.
This programme has been running in support of the UK government’s ambitious initiatives to get 40 million more girls from low- and middle-income countries into primary and secondary school by 2026. It is the first time the Professional Fellowship programme has been linked to a specific shared theme and we were delighted to be supported by five specially selected host organisations across England and Wales, all working in development areas linked to Girls’ Education and women empowerment. The five organisations welcoming this year’s cohort of fellows were: Cardiff University’s Phoenix Project, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, Knowledge for Change, Lifegate Outreach Centre and Windle Trust International.
To mark the end of this programme, we sat down with two of this year’s Professional Fellows and one of the Host partners. We reflected on the past three months from a Fellow and a Host’s perspective, discussing what key learnings came out of the programme, exploring how it influenced the Fellows’ understanding of the challenges facing Girls’ Education, and how they can start tackling these challenges in their work. Joining us for the conversation were Phoebe Aluoch Ohodho from Kenya, a Fellow at Windle Trust International; Syeda Nazneen Jahan from Bangladesh, a Fellow at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation; and Mathias Akor from Nigeria, a Host at Lifegate Outreach Centre.
Starting off the conversation, we asked Phoebe, Nazneen and Mathias to think back to what their aims were at the start of their Fellowship journey.
‘I came with an open mind to learn and to interact’, started off Phoebe, who works in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, overseeing scholarship programmes for girls in secondary education with Windle International Kenya. Phoebe started working with the organisation in 2014 as a secondary school teacher and has since worked her way up to where she is today, managing several girls related projects in the camp.
‘I feel I came to this Fellowship with an empty mind, apart from the practical skills I have learned in the field while working with our beneficiaries. I was dealing with many challenges, but I did not know how to handle them. For me, it has always been about work without having time to step back, reflect and evaluate whether I am moving in the right direction and making a positive impact for the people I serve. In this programme I wanted to meet people working in similar set-ups and probably going through the same challenges. I hoped that by sharing and interacting with them and learning how they do things in their countries, I would be able to adjust their approach to issues in my context and find appropriate solutions to the challenges I faced.
I can now confidently say that it has been a very fruitful and successful learning experience as we got to learnt more than we expected and the exposure we got cannot be put into words. [Before the Fellowship], I had very raw experience in certain areas that I considered very crucial in my day-to-day work, but I had no formal training in these areas. I feel this was the best opportunity for me where I learned new experiences and can now connect them to my context.’
For Nazneen, who works as the Head of Youth Empowerment programmes at BRAC International in Africa and Asia, it was the challenges related to COVID-19 and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that propelled her to apply. Nazneen had been engaged with a girls’ secondary education programme in Afghanistan that was about to reach its next stage when the Taliban took over. Suddenly, the programme had to be shut down: ‘The families and the girls had all been counting on us, and suddenly we didn’t know what would happen or if the project could even continue. That was really painful for us.’ Then there were the issues she observed in Bangladesh during the lockdowns, where she saw how school shutdowns were particularly affecting girls’ access to education.
‘Sitting at home in lockdown, watching all of this unfurl, I saw the Fellowship come up and thought: well, this is basically made for me, let’s give it a try. I wasn’t sure at first how CTO’s work aligned with the topic of Girls’ Education. However, still I applied for CTO because the areas of their work as mentioned in the Fellowship brief during the application process made me interested and I wanted to learn and explore how technology could be applied to help out-of-school girls. And I knew that collaboration was key for this. Everyone is needed to work out together how the telecommunications sector can help tackle key development issues also in rural areas.’
Turning to the host perspective, Mathias explained that Lifegate is an organisation focused on community development. There are a range of issues that fall under this category, from adult/youth educational training and family integration programmes to adult social care and working with school drop-outs. The organisation began with a focus on the UK local context initially but then started to internationalise its work in 2014 when they first became a Professional Fellowship host organisation working with the CSC. When it came to the Girls’ Education Fellowship, they felt their aims and resources were particularly aligned with the programme:
‘This is an area we felt very knowledgeable and experienced in. Many of us working at Lifegate are from Africa, so we understand the African context and its specific challenges. Therefore, we knew that by combining our context knowledge with our UK experiences, we would be able to help our Fellows bridge those knowledge gaps by taking advantage of the UK systems and enable them to contribute to better systems in their home countries. Our goal was to bring this experience and knowledge to the Fellows.’
When discussing how these aims matched up with the Fellows’ experience and take-homes from the Fellowship, the conversation was not short of ideas. Mathias emphasised the practical aspects of the programme:
‘We didn’t just stop at teaching and exploring the sustainability goals around Girls’ Education, we also taught them the technical and practical aspects and ways of sustaining the agendas we discussed. We helped them get to know and network with various stakeholders, from donor agencies to small businesses, and those collaborations will last even after they leave.’
The topic of collaboration was a key outcome that came up again and again in the conversation. As a self-described ‘global citizen’ working for an international organisation, this aspect was particularly important for Nazneen:
‘The programme allowed us to take learnings from multiple countries. The people I have met over the Fellowship came from all over, and I was able to learn best practices from them, how they approached certain challenges, what worked and what didn’t in their context. Getting access to this entire Fellows network has been a huge privilege. In future I believe I will be able to connect with them whenever I need, and they will be able to reach out to me whenever they need.’
Mathias, Nazneen and Phoebe all emphasised that their learning outcomes were determined by the topics and issues that the Fellows themselves put forward and wanted to learn more about. As Phoebe explained:
‘When we came here, our host asked us to share other topics/areas we wanted to learn more about that were not captured in the programme. Topics we highlighted included finance for non-finance professionals, leadership, communication strategies, issues on safeguarding and managing people. This last aspect is my own greatest challenge, as I have to manage very big groups of people in my work, from teachers to parents, with no prior management experience. In response, [our host] organised for various professional speakers to talk to us on those areas.
Now I feel like I’ve gone through an entire academic semester of learning. For me, the main challenges I encountered within my context were well represented during the Fellowship. What I’m left with now is to put all these learnings into practice when I get back to my workstation.’
One key aspect that Phoebe spoke about in this regard is the idea that sometimes mindsets are more – or just as – important as money in guaranteeing the success of a programme:
‘One thing that [the Fellowship] has challenged me to put into practice is to try to change the mind-set of people on various issues they have long believed in, even though I know it is not an easy task. From the Fellowship I got to learn that the belief held by many, that if there is money then projects and programmes are successfully implemented and will achieve their objectives, is not true. It’s about so much more than the availability of money, as the success of a project also entails serious advocacy and changing the mind-set of the community.
I came to learn that even if the money is there, if the peoples’ minds are still fixed on what they believe in, then a successful project implementation is still far from being realised. There were many instances in my work where some parents have taken their daughters out of school to marry them off, or a girl just decided to drop out of school even though they were not pregnant or being pressured into marriage. In the past, when faced with these situations, I felt helpless, I didn’t know what to do. But now I feel like there is something I can do. These are the mind-sets that need to be changed even if it will take ages.’
The wider perceptions affecting Girls’ Education were another core component of our conversation. When asked to sum up how the programme influenced their understanding of the challenges facing Girls’ Education, Nazneen shared:
‘I really liked that all the events and conversations I’ve had throughout the Fellowship demonstrated how Girls’ Education is much broader than just the institutional component. We spoke so much about life skills, citizenship, leadership – all these aspects of education that stretch much further than the school element and far beyond what I expected when I first read the Programme’s aims about getting 40 million more girls into school by 2026. It didn’t say in the Fellowship programme that we would speak about reproductive healthcare or gender-based violence, but our conversations stretched to all these topics because these are the external factors impacting girls and hindering the process of receiving an education or even learning at all. I am glad that education is no longer looked at [purely] as an institutional piece but rather as lifelong learning.’
For Phoebe, the Fellowship also directly influenced how she looks at the needs of the girls she works with:
‘It taught me the need to treat each individual girl differently, and to give them time and space to express themselves and be involved in the decision-making on projects and policies that are designed for them and will affect them. I can now go back and give the students room to express their views in decision making processes, particularly on issues that involve them. Many of them come from communities where they feel they cannot speak, they cannot express their views and speak their minds, and so to get something out of them then you really have to bend low, be quiet and dig deeper and give them time.’
Turning to the future, with applications for the next Professional Fellowship programme opening soon, we asked Mathias, Phoebe and Nazneen what they would say to a prospective Host organisation or Professional Fellow thinking about applying for the programme:
‘I would encourage people to apply and be open-minded, since this is an avenue and a great opportunity to learn and make a difference in people’s lives. But first, they should make the initial attempt to apply, as long as the theme is in line with their area of specialisation – I am living testimony that it is possible.’ – Phoebe Aluoch Ohodho from Kenya, a Fellow at Windle Trust International
‘To host organisations, I would say first and foremost that it’s not all about money, it’s about your drive to make change happen in different societies – whether in the UK or abroad, and no matter how micro it is. For change to happen, we need all sorts of resources, not just quantitative materials, or money. We also need adequate faculty, development mindsets, the social and political will. By being a host organisation, you are helping to build up those resources.’ – Mathias Akor from Nigeria, a Host at Lifegate Outreach Centre
‘I would recommend people to apply. Why? Because this is a platform for learning, for people who don’t have exposure beyond their own space and their own country. So, push yourself to go beyond your boundary. Come to another space to meet people from diverse cultural contexts. It will help you to broaden your mindset, broaden your thought processes and to accept other people’s ideas. And having been a CSC Scholar too, I know from experience that once you come into this community you will meet so many great friends and become part of an interesting and effective network for life.’ – Syeda Nazneen Jahan from Bangladesh, a Fellow at the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation