Reaching Girls at the Grassroots – A Sound Investment (Part 1)

When girls are educated, healthy, and safe, their own life prospects are transformed. And importantly, they transfer those benefits to their future families and their communities. When girls have access to opportunity, they spur social change and positive economic development. This echo into future generations is The Girl Effect.

Although more donors are making strategic and significant investments in programs focused on adolescent girls, a significant proportion of these funds remain targeted at large international organizations. Certainly larger programs, policy efforts, and economic reforms are needed to bring about structural change at national and international levels.

However without building a base of committed stakeholders at all levels—in particular the local level—change runs the risk of being inconsequential in the everyday lives of girls.

Individual and institutional donors can avoid this by investing in grassroots organizations, powerful actors that are finding and reaching marginalized girls and unlocking their potential. Grassroots organizations are reaching a demographic of extremely vulnerable and hard-to-reach girls through homegrown, targeted, and context-specific strategies. Most importantly, grassroots organizations are made up of people who are on the ground, using their local resources including time, ingenuity, and perseverance—with often very limited funding—to ensure that girls receive the opportunities they deserve.

How do grassroots organizations reach marginalized girls?

Grassroots organizations are part of the social fabric of the community in which girls live and grow. This uniquely positions them to serve and be led by vulnerable, unreached, and marginalized girls who, for example, are sexually exploited, girls with disabilities, out-of-school girls, girls who live or work on the streets, single mothers, and sexual assault and incest survivors. Their positioning also makes grassroots organizations well-suited to find and serve girls from groups that face discrimination or may be less visible, including ethnic and religious minorities, girls living in slum and squatter communities, refugees, migrants, and internally-displaced persons.

Grassroots organizations are often the “first responders,” addressing girls’ immediate and long-term needs. When election-related violence breaks out, an earthquake hits, or a case of abuse is discovered, grassroots organizations can snap into action to make sure girls are safe and cared for, demonstrating a resourcefulness and commitment to girls that stems from their “staying power” at the local level. They leverage locally-available human, material, and financial resources to bring about durable change for girls.

What are grassroots organizations’ key strengths in reaching girls?

Contextual Expertise – As locally-rooted institutions, grassroots organizations have vital expertise in the interpersonal interactions and caring relationships in a girl’s everyday life. Their day-to-day interactions with marginalized girls and their families, along with language and cultural skills, allow grassroots organizations a deeper understanding of how girls cope and the social fabric surrounding girls than any other development actor.

This intimate position within girls’ lives and in the community enables grassroots organizations to (1) have the legitimacy and trust to reach marginalized and isolated girls with supportive and appropriate care, (2) design programs that are deemed most necessary and sensible in their locality, and (3) use their expertise to influence local support systems and institutions (e.g. families, schools, etc.) to more adequately fulfill girls’ rights.

As an adolescent girl, the author benefitted immensely from the support of her community.

Continuity– Large development projects led by governments, international aid agencies, and foundations reach girls, but they often come with a narrow focus, restrictions on how the funding can be used, and fixed time frames. However, grassroots organizations have the direct and lasting relationships needed to support a girl throughout her journey to womanhood. Grassroots organizations staff and volunteers often know the girls they serve on an individual basis, resulting in a very personal stake and a long-term commitment to the success of their efforts to empower girls.

Connectedness – Embedded in the community, grassroots organizations can help girls develop a genuine sense of belonging, self-esteem, leadership, and ownership that enables girls to expand their intimate circles of support. Girls who have connections to each other and beyond their own families are healthier, physically and mentally, and are more able and willing to make positive changes in their lives.

Despite these competencies, grassroots groups face a formidable challenge; they must continually seek out and compete for new resources in a funding environment that is often led by global trends rather than persistent, ongoing development challenges and that favors short-term grants to larger, higher-profile groups. Yet effective grassroots organizations are continually overwhelmed with community demand for their programs.

Grants to grassroots organizations can start small and grow with the groups as they develop, based on an in-depth understanding of the organizations, the people who make them up, and most importantly, the girls they serve.

So how do donors reach grassroots organizations? See Part 2 here.


Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on are part of The Girl Effect Blogging Campaign. You may read other posts or share your own reflection on the Girl Effect here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #girleffect.


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  1. Love the grassroots spin on the Girl Effect campaign. When I think of organizations giving back to girls, I can name so many off the top of my head. It’s definitely great that there’s a lot of caring people out there looking after the female gender.

  2. Thank you for this important discussion. I want to say something about your statement that an educated girl will transfer the benefits of education to her FUTURE family. This is true and very important. But what we have discovered at Mvule Trust in Uganda is that first she helps her NATAL family — the family she was born into, delaying her own marriage to do so. We have just completed a tracer study of 433 former beneficiairies, 123 of whom qualified in professions such as nursing and forestry. We found that that group paid on average for two siblings to be in school. But the practice of supporting siblings’ school fees was noticed in the groups that completed O levels (174 traced) and A levels (83 traced). 89% of our sample were girls, but we also saw this with the boys we traced. We also found qualified beneficiaries building houses for their parents and buying them assets like cows. The extent of the support to their natal family was such that parents went from wanting them to leave school to marry to not wanting them to marry yet — so that they could continue to provide the support. Several girls reported to us their families saying — if we had forced her to marry, who would be helping us now?

    I wrote abouut this for a piece that I submitted to The Guardian development page, which they did not use, possibly because Mvule Trust was The Guardian Xmas appeal in 2009 and it would have look like a conflict of interest. But we have documented this not to blow Mvule Trust’s trumpet but rather to so that education has extraordinary benefits that we — the collective world of educators and social change people — have not begun to fully explore. I will paste in the article in a second comment. Thanks.

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  4. Pingback: Defining Grassroots Google Hangout - Thursday, 7 November at 4pm (EAT) | Open Institute

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