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3 Ways to Tailor Your Programs to Invest in Girls

Here, Shanna Marzilli — President & CEO of Plan International USA — outlines three key areas that every skills-training program should incorporate to build a better, more equal, future working world.

What future working world do we want for girls and women?

This is something I think a lot about, both as the mother of three daughters and as the CEO of Plan International USA — a children’s rights and girls’ equality nonprofit — and it’s what we’re asking our supporters this year for International Women’s Day (March 8).

I hope that my daughters get to pursue a career of their choosing, regardless of gender stereotypes. I hope that they get to work in an environment where they feel safe to speak up. I hope that the future working world is free of discrimination and inequality.

So, how do we chart a course to making those dreams a reality? One way we address this at Plan is through our programs in over 80 countries — including an emphasis on skills training. We have more than 85 years of experience implementing projects in partnership with girls themselves in local communities around the world. And we've learned a lot.

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We want to share our experience so that you can learn from it. That’s why we’re sharing these three key areas that every skills-training program should incorporate to build a better, more equal working world in the future — for girls, and for everyone.

1. Start with girls at the center

Who knows more about customer experience than your own customers? Designing solutions for the end user, also known as human-centered design, is one of the best ways to ensure your programs are efficient and fit for purpose.

Here’s an example of how Plan has seen success using a human-centered approach to program design. In Ethiopia, we partnered with the US government and a global corporation to provide skilled labor to one of the country’s industrial parks. A top industry in these parks is textile manufacturing, where the workforce is 94 percent female and 77 percent of workers are at peak reproductive age of 18-24 years.

In 2023, Plan reached over 600,000 people through programming on skills and decent work, including Fatima. She is part of a Plan savings group set up to strengthen women’s economic security. © Plan International

Many employees had relocated in order to take advantage of the employment opportunity; but workers were facing significant barriers, due to the nature of work in the parks. Away from their traditional community support systems and pursuing an untraditional career path, working mothers were struggling to balance caregiving responsibilities and their employment. As a result, they were dropping out of formal employment at high rates, or failing to advance in their roles. Industrial parks began underperforming due in part to recruitment challenges, high rates of turnover and reduced productivity.

In 2020, Plan International and its partners piloted a sustainability-focused, community-based childcare model to address the needs of women working for their suppliers in the Hawassa Industrial Park. The resultant model is customized to suit the needs of an industrial park workforce, including scheduling service hours to match employment shifts and offering programming to help working mothers navigate biased gender norms within their families.

Now, the Hawassa Industrial Park is home to childcare centers that support over 200 children every year. Workers have reported lower absenteeism from work, improved productivity and increased participation in work — leading to increases in pay. Designing a human-centered program that addresses women’s unique needs benefited everyone — from workers to families to managers.

Plan’s signature, human-centered approach to program design is called GirlEngage: Instead of treating girls as passive participants or beneficiaries in our work, this approach involves girls as true partners — helping to design and implement the programs that aim to improve their lives.

2. Train for a more sustainable future

When we asked our network of young leaders what they would like to see in the future, environmental issues were top of mind.

“Climate change is not just an issue in Nepal, but a global concern,” says Shikha, a Plan youth advocate. “We need to think about how to create space for eco-entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture and involve women in green businesses.”

Plan programs around the world are providing training today to make the world Shikha describes a reality tomorrow. For instance, “The Future Is Green! Promoting Youth Agri-preneurship in Rwanda” project aims to economically integrate rural youth, especially young women, into the world of agriculture.

Through hands-on training, participants gain valuable skills based on the adaptation of modern agriculture techniques such as the application of fertilizers and utilization of irrigation, among other things. Additionally, young women receive training in value chain and labor market analyses — as well as safeguarding and the prevention of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse — to pave the way for a brighter future.

Alice has become well known in her area of Rwanda as a successful vegetable farmer. She says much of her knowledge and entrepreneurial expertise came from joining a green skills project run by Plan International. © Plan International

The project works with local services to provide and improve market-driven agriculture and entrepreneurship training, which is gender-responsive and youth-friendly, and creates employment opportunities for out-of-work youth. Overall, the project will reach 900 youth through 10 technical, vocational, educational training centers and 10 farming cooperatives.

“Equipping young women with green skills enables them to compete in the labor markets,” Alice, one of the program’s participants, says. “The technical training not only expanded my agricultural know-how, but also fueled my future ambition to think big and beyond.”

3. Provide entrepreneurship opportunities for girls and women

Entrepreneurship could be the key to achieving economic gender equality. When women start their own businesses, they gain financial independence. Working for yourself can also provide schedule flexibility, allowing women to balance work with other responsibilities. This is critical, as women still shoulder a disproportionate share of housework and childcare.

That’s why Plan offers entrepreneurship training for young women that is designed to help them confront these traditional gender norms, in addition to providing the technical skills they need to start a business.

"I grew up amid shrimp shells and the smell of seafood," Carmen says. From the coastal province of Manabí in Ecuador, she now makes her living from the sea after helping set up a women’s entrepreneurial organization with the support of Plan International. © Plan International

In Ecuador, Carmen (pictured) worked with Plan to set up an entrepreneurship program for women in her community, to help them build economic autonomy. Targeting the shrimp industry, the Seafood Processing Services Association was set up to specialize in providing shrimp-heading services to local packing factories. Carmen is one of 29 association group members, which is made up of mothers and other women from the area.

Carmen says her work with Plan has changed her life.

“My time is divided between my family, work, dreams, goals and my service to the community,” she says. “Thanks to this project I feel that I have regained my power as a woman, my economic independence, and I have been able to support my home and daughters. Today I am a free, authentic, powerful and happy woman.”

In contemplating the future of our workplaces and the role of women within them, it's impossible to ignore the profound impact of investing in girls today. The landscape of work is rapidly evolving, and it's crucial that we equip girls with the skills and opportunities they need to thrive in this changing world. By investing in programs that put girls at the center, and provide training in skills and entrepreneurship needed for a sustainable economy, your business can help lay the foundation for a more equitable and prosperous future for us all.

As we celebrate International Women's Day this year, let’s commit to creating a future working world where girls and women are valued, respected and encouraged to reach their full potential. Together, we can build a world where every girl has the opportunity to thrive, and where gender equality is not just a dream but a reality.

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