As we continue to struggle as a nation to cope with the impact of Covid-19 on a local, national and international level, and adapt our lives to a new normal in order to keep the R number below 1 and implement strategic lockdowns in specific communities, I stop to reflect on the impact this pandemic is having on our 2020 project helping girls in Zimbabwe continue their education. Whilst we complain about compulsory quarantine after a 2 week holiday in Spain, rally against wearing face masks in busy public places, miss having mass social gatherings with our friends and family and struggle with continuing to work from home in an ever changing landscape, spare a thought for a country that is suffering from a poor harvest, rampant inflation and a growing Coronavirus problem.

Lockdown restrictions have tightened again in Zimbabwe and the WFP (World Food Programme) have raised concerns that two-thirds of the population will need food aid by the end of 2020. The lockdown has led to riots in the city streets, mass unemployment and rural hunger as urban migrants return to their villages where there is already little to eat.

In this extremely difficult political, economic and social environment the Plan International UK project (of which Jellybean is a part sponsor) has had to adapt in order to continue to help as many girls as possible continue their education. Battling all three crises at once along with hyper-inflation has forced cut backs to the project: the number of beneficiaries has reduced to 16,500 girls, the timeframe has shortened by 17 months so it will now end 31st July 2023 and the number of learning hubs has been reduced to 110.

Plan is doing everything it can to implement the revised project, recognising the urgent need to act now, but also mindful of the longer-term need to counteract the secondary impact of this crisis – poverty, hunger and violence exacerbated by the pandemic – and its ability to hit children, especially girls, the hardest.

As explained in our January blog, girls in Zimbabwe are not given the same chances as boys for a secondary school education. They are held back by beliefs about their ability and value and miss out on vital basic literacy and numeracy skills. Adolescence has a huge impact on the lives of girls in Zimbabwe. Once a girl reaches puberty, her safety and wellbeing are at risk from harmful attitudes and practices, like early marriage and gender-based violence. This situation has worsened in the Coronavirus crisis and more girls are at risk of losing their chance for a better future forever.

The project we are supporting aims to give the most marginalised girls in Zimbabwe, living in the most disadvantaged communities, the chance to start learning again. We help out-of-school girls return to education, access training opportunities or start making a safe living.

Under current restrictions the Community Learning Hubs have had to close in line with all schools, community-based activities can’t happen and paper materials can’t be distributed. The Plan team is working hard to adapt to online learning and social media based information dissemination, but working in regions with limited connectivity and affected by power shortages hampers this on a daily basis.

With this backdrop the project has had to re-prioritise: to keep the girls safe in this emergency phase, to continue to support the girls with their learning and to continue to monitor girls’ safety and learning journeys.

Whilst some activities can continue as planned, many have had to be suspended to ensure the health and safety of beneficiaries. Staff recruitment of local, district Coordinators who monitor and evaluate the project has been suspended as have any face-to-face training or large-scale community awareness-raising and group meetings. Refurbishing and setting up the Hubs, which require the movement of goods and supplies, has also paused.

So enough of what can’t be done, let’s celebrate what we are achieving despite these unprecedented and extremely difficult circumstances. The project will still reach 16,500 beneficiaries, and so far the project has:

• Launched another 22 community-based Learning Hubs, bringing our total to 84
• Registered a total of 5,741 girls to take part
• Finished building toilets and renovating 11 Learning Hubs
• Helped 21 girls to re-enroll in the school system through government scholarships
• Fitted 11 girls with hearing aids.
• Trained 405 volunteers to support and teach at the Learning Hubs
• Run Champions of Girls Education sessions with 4,870 girls and 620 boys

Sandile’s Story

Pre-lockdown, the project team attended an afternoon session in one of the Learning Hubs in Bulilima. The class was sitting in groups according to their ability, tackling different tasks to test their numeracy. One group was noticeably of mixed abiliites. Sandile sits listening to several other girls explain addition and subtraction by counting beads on strings and adding in multiples of twos, threes and upwards. When it’s her turn, her classmates help Sandile until she gets it right.

Speaking to the girls after class, the project team learned that Sandile enrolled later than most girls and that when she arrived, she couldn’t read, write or do simple maths. But she was keen to learn. The Community Educator put Sandile into a mixed group and gave her peers the task of helping Sandile catch up.

The experiment paid off. “Because of her determination to learn and support from her peers, Sandile picked it up quickly,” says the Community Educator. She is happy with her reception and grateful for their help. “If someone joins the Hub later than me,” Sandile enthuses, “I would recommend that she joins the group”.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, PI Zimbabwe has delivered WhatsApp-based training to volunteers and district staff on newly developed guidance for safeguarding and facilitating remote support, meaning that over 2,700 SAGE girls have the opportunity to resume phone-based conversations with their educators and Champions of Change facilitators. The team found that 56% of girls have access to a mobile phone and 96% are supported by their parents and husbands to maintain contact. PI are still working hard to find ways to continue to deliver the project to the remaining girls without mobile access.
The team is also using a variety of communication channels to share short, simple messages about child protection and staying safe from abuse and exploitation directly with girls.

Whilst restricted on providing assistance devices for girls with disabilities PI Zimbabwe continues to procure spectacles and wheelchairs that it knows will be needed when the project fully resumes. The Hubs remain closed in line with schools but the girls have learning materials in order to continue improving their literacy and numeracy at home. Community Educators (CEs) are being remotely trained and educated on issues like safeguarding and provide direct support to girls in their communities. CE’s also provide one-on-one support to help with remote learning over the phone or door-to-door if it can be done safely and the development and printing of curriculum materials continues.

Savings and Loans Groups to give girls’ mothers access to credit is done remotely via virtual introductory meetings and Plan continues to remotely develop guidance and selection criteria for apprentice-masters, to support older girls who take up apprenticeships and it is building communities of allies to ensure girls’ voices are heard on important issues.

Volunteer Champion Coordinators receive remote training on spotting and dealing with safeguarding issues and continue to work with the girls and boys who are already participating, phone-checking on their wellbeing and safety as well as sharing hygiene promotion messages. Refresher training is handled via WhatsApp and audio messages to address specific challenges.

The project is still being monitored virtually for quality information via quarterly steering group meetings with project stakeholders, a result monitoring system and online surveys with schools and Hub staff as well as community feedback.

PI Zimbabwe is hoping to be in a position to resume normal programming in the near future and will mobilise its network of over 400 Community Volunteers, as well as school staff and local people, to spread positive messages on how to stay healthy, guidelines on social distancing and advice on children’s rights.

It has already developed radio messages around gender-based violence, child protection and sexual and reproductive health and rights which have been broadcast across five national and community radio stations.
It has engaged local artists to raise awareness of hygiene through core prevention messaging and it has developed child friendly public health information, education and communications materials including an animation.

Whilst it’s not what we planned for 2020 I am thrilled that Jellybean has been able to help Plan provide continued support to the girls in Zimbabwe via SAGE and I hope that through our endeavours we will change the lives of many who survive through these extremely tough and difficult times and thrive in the future.