Supporting vulnerable girls to succeed in school – and beyond.
This project was completed in June 2021.
More than 95% of children in Nepal are now enrolled in primary school, compared to 80% ten years ago. Despite this, girls still face many barriers to completing their education, including early marriage, taboos around menstruation, and a high domestic workload.
Now, during widespread school closures caused by COVID-19, these barriers are even greater, and many girls are at risk of never returning to formal education.
The social prejudices that hold girls back run deep, from policy-makers to family members – and even among young women themselves. Internalised patriarchal beliefs about their role in society means that teenage girls may not see the value in going to school, believing instead that it is their destiny to marry – and even when they do get to class, a lack of confidence means many don’t engage fully.
The first phase of Sisters for Sisters supported thousands of girls from marginalised communities to improve their school attendance and participation, by pairing them with volunteer ‘Big Sisters’ – female mentors who offer encouragement, accountability, and essential information on sexual and reproductive health issues.
The second phase focused on continuing to support the same cohort of girls as they navigated adolescence and started to make their way in the world. We’re empowered girls to recognise that they have choices and agency when it comes to their future – including deciding whether to continue their education, and choosing when to get married and have children.
We supported 9,805 vulnerable girls to thrive.
We're worked in 49 schools, across four districts.
We've trained 320 'Big Sister' mentors.
94% of Little Sisters enjoyed being mentored and felt it helped them to stay in school.
A holistic web of support
We know that change needs to happen at multiple levels, so our innovative approach embeds volunteers in various points of society, forming a ‘holistic web of support’ around vulnerable girls.
1. ‘Big Sister’ mentors
At the heart of Sisters for Sisters was a mentoring scheme which supported girls to learn and grow, through the power of positive female role models. ‘Big Sisters’ – local women with training in life skills and education – mentor, inspire and motivate their ‘Little Sisters’, encouraging them to go to school, empowering them to speak out in lessons, and ensuring they get the education they need to unlock their potential.
Outside the classroom, Big Sisters acted as role models, sharing their own experiences and offering invaluable advice and information, especially around sexual and reproductive health.
By boosting the confidence and self-esteem of their mentees, Big Sisters foster younger girls’ sense of independence and self-worth, empowering them to take control not only of their health and education – but of their future life choices.
Little Sister Sonu
My Big Sister is my role model. Mentoring made me strong, bold and feel mature. Working with Laxmi was the turning point in my life.
Taboos and harmful traditional practices surrounding menstruation are major barriers to girls’ education. Damaging cultural beliefs, combined with limited access to sanitary products, means many girls would be forced to miss school completely during their period.
As well as sharing essential information and advice about menstruation and sexual and reproductive health more broadly, the Big Sisters have taught girls how to make reusable sanitary pads, meaning they no longer have to stay at home every month.
Over five years as a volunteer, I’ve seen enormous change in the communities. Parents who were not at all interested in girls’ education are now completely on board... It’s making a huge impact.Anne LawEducation volunteer
2. Changing community attitudes
Big Sisters also worked to change parental attitudes and garner their support for education, encouraging them to prioritise their daughters’ schooling over domestic work and marriage.
Alongside the Big Sisters, we recruited and trained 426 adult champions – volunteers who work to challenge long-entrenched prejudices against girls and convince the wider community of the value of female education.
3. Strengthening education for all
Specialist volunteers worked with headteachers and local government officials, strengthening the capacity of parent-teacher associations and school management committees, and developing school improvement plans – improving the inclusivity and quality of education for all children, not just the Little Sisters.
Finally, international expert volunteers were embedded within government institutions – including the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology – supporting their Nepali colleagues to build on educational best practice from around the world.
We have contributed to ongoing education system development by sharing data from the project with key stakeholders, and supporting policymakers to introduce our innovative activities into schools across the country.
“I got training in life skills”
It’s not just the girls themselves who are benefiting from the project: Big Sisters also reported feeling more confident, and better equipped to express themselves, since becoming mentors and receiving VSO-led training.
Big Sister Durga Dahal, 37
From when I first joined this project, I got training in life skills. From that point onwards, I really felt the importance of education: that every girl needs to be in school.
After the projects initial success, we expanded into three more rural districts in Nepal. We’re focused on reaching some of the most marginalised girls in society, including those living with disabilities – over 30% of whom don’t attend school at all. Building on what we learnt from the project’s successes so far, we provided individual support to girls living in extreme poverty, survivors of gender-based violence, and young people with disabilities.
Taking Sisters for Sisters to Nigeria
Sisters for Sisters proved so successful in Nepal that we worked with local partners in the Enugu and Kano regions of Nigeria to adapt our approach to reach even more young people – particularly those living with disabilities.
So far, we’ve recruited 40 community volunteers, eight national graduate volunteers and four professional volunteer sign language experts, who will train 210 peer mentors, in turn supporting 1,020 young people.
Creation of the ENGAGE project
We’ve adapted the pioneering peer mentoring approach of our Sisters for Sisters project to support 2,660 marginalised and out-of-school girls – especially those living with a disability – in the Terai region of Nepal. Through our ENGAGE (empowering a new generation of adolescent girls with education) project we’re helping girls with disabilities to benefit from a quality education, develop the skills they need to earn a decent living, and become empowered to control their own sexual and reproductive health.
Our ENGAGE project is addressing socio-cultural norms which don’t prioritise girls’ education, raising awareness of the support available for girls with disabilities, and building the skills and capacity of 100 practising teachers and 90 student teachers through training and ongoing mentoring.
Keeping girls safe and learning during COVID-19
For girls in the remote areas where we work, the dangers associated with school closures are high: our initial research has found that almost all (89%) the girls we work with are now spending much longer carrying out domestic duties and supporting their families with the harvest, so limiting the amount of time available for self-study.
More worrying still is that reports of gender-based violence and forced marriage are already rising.
We know that it’s essential to maintain the relationships we’ve built with these communities and keep girls engaged, even while schools are shut. Big Sister mentors are kept in touch with their Little Sisters, checking in with them and motivating them to keep up with their learning – three quarters of Little Sisters spoke to their Big Sister during the lockdown, mostly by phone and SMS.
Importantly, the encouragement that Big Sisters provide went beyond homework: they also supported younger girls with everyday problems, helping to build their self-confidence and resilience, and offer an invaluable listening ear – especially needed during times of heightened stress and worry in the home.
Stories from Sisters for Sisters
When Durga Bista was 18, she dropped out of school to get married and dedicate her time to household chores. Now, she volunteers as a ‘Big Sister’, supporting vulnerable girls in her home community of Ranighat to stay in school.
13-year-old Pramila used to have to prioritise homework over studying – but with the support of her Big Sister Rama, she’s now thriving at school and dreams of becoming a teacher one day.
Arti was only 14 when her parents arranged her marriage - but Big Sister Anu stepped in, working with her parents and the community to delay marriage and keep Arti in school.
Nirmala used to struggle at school as she was told by her parents to prioritise domestic work over education - but after three years on the Sisters for Sisters project, her grades and confidence have hugely improved.