Many of the girls we work with are deeply insecure. Their streets, homes and schools have often not been safe places for them. Many have experienced violence and belittling. They have not been able to express their opinions. Their creativity has not been rewarded. Their success has not been praised. In our project we want women and girls to discover their value, that they bring something to the world that only they have. We need to give them a physical space that shows that they are valuable. It needs to be safe and clean. It needs to provide them with the opportunity to study hard and get to know other students. Friendship is a great gift and our good friends greatly enrich our lives.

Youth Worker, Nigeria

Girls’ and boys’ – only schools are found across Africa, whilst government-funded education is often mixed. There is very little research on what is better for girls, and what exists has been conducted outside the continent. Parents and educators, seeking the best for girls, often wonder what the best place for them to learn and grow is. If we want girls and young women to develop leadership skills, will they do this better in a place designed to meet their needs, or in one where they will face the challenges and barriers of the ‘real world’? Does forcing girls to compete from the beginning with their male peers – in an environment often weighted against them – boost their confidence, or damage it?

Whilst the research still needs to be done (and we’d love to be part of it!), we see in our work that many young girls – and their parents – actively look for girls-only education activities outside of schools. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Concerns about safety.
  • Their culture may frown upon girls mixing with boys, or being seen doing certain activities (such as sports) in mixed environments.
  • They want a setting where girls can access every opportunity and aren’t daunted to speak up or lead.
  • They want an environment where girls see women in leadership positions.
  • They want an environment designed to play to girls’ learning needs.

In our cultures, girls and boys face different learning challenges both because of sex-based differences and because we often raise girls and boys differently:

  • Girls develop at different rates than boys, reaching puberty at different times.
  • Being in a mixed environment during puberty can distract girls and boys from learning.
  • Some research shows that the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical to verbal memory storage, develops earlier for girls and is larger in women than men. By contrast, a larger part of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to spatial and mechanical functions in boys’ brains. Therefore, girls learn better verbally while boys learn better with movement and images. 
  • Our expectations of girls’ and boys’ roles and chores at home often favour boys, giving girls less time to study (and meaning they go to school tired).
  • We may invest less in girls’ education than in boys’, spending less money and investing less time in their learning.

Providing girls and young women with spaces where they can study and learn safely and not be afraid to excel is a good reason to have girls-only spaces. We believe that giving girls the opportunity to identify their strengths, learning in a space where they aren’t afraid to shine, and having the opportunity to address their weaknesses in a space where they aren’t already set up to fail, is important. Seeing other women in leadership positions, and being treated with respect, shows them that creating a more just world is possible, and what that could look like. Young women who have confidence, know their value and how they should be treated, and know how to boost others’ confidence, will make good choices about their futures. They will have the tools to start to chip away at the barriers they face as women and to create a better future for themselves and others.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you provide safe and empowering spaces for girls in your youth work?
  2. Do you see a value in providing female-only spaces?
  3. If your project is mixed (girls and boys) can you still ensure that there are safe spaces for girls or time for girls’ only activities?

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