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No One Size Fits All For Girls: How the different stages adolescence girls experience require different programming

The differences between them seem obvious at first glance- an 11-year-old girl sitting side by side at a small wooden desk with a 17-year-old girl in a dusty sunlit classroom. Two vastly different heights, even seated, the younger is dressed in a khaki, middle school uniform, the older in a colorful, wrap-around skirt and t-shirt. They may both be Fon young women from the same tiny village in rural Benin, similar in so many ways, unified by so many factors in their lives, but the simple fact of their age creates a massive chasm between them. In recent years their daily experiences and the ways that their community perceives and treats them have become starkly different. Every day the difference between their emotional and cognitive needs grows and shifts. 

Although their differences may seem obvious, girls, adolescent girls, and young women of dramatically different ages are frequently brought together into the same classroom by well-intentioned programs hoping to equip them with useful knowledge and skills. Programs designed for girls often expect them to be “junior women” rather than a distinct segment in need of tailored content. From data collected by the Batonga Foundation in Benin, very few surveyed organizations separate out their activities by age. Where age segments do exist, the range is often as broad as 10 to 24-years-old, and it is not always clear if different strategies and program content are being adapted for each age group.

When Batonga first launched its SONAFA Leadership Club methodology in 2017, its clubs were not yet age segmented, and instead grouped girls as young as 15 with young women as old as 25. However, Batonga’s staff quickly learned that this period of time in an adolescent girl and/or young woman’s life is anything but uniform; this is particularly true in countries like Benin where the median age of first marriage is between 18 and 19 years old and 25% of adult women had their first child before turning 18. The dramatic and life altering events that tend to take place in a Beninese young woman’s life across adolescence and young adulthood make it nearly impossible to provide uniform, unsegmented programming to this entire age group that is specific to each participants’ needs and lived experiences. 

Unsurprisingly, Batonga found that its initial one-program-fits-all approach was not working for every young woman and girl, with some requesting more complex content, others requiring significantly more basic introductions to topics like personal financial management and sexual and reproductive health. Though these girls, adolescents, and young women share many of the same unifying needs- the need for a safe space, a trustworthy mentor, a network of supportive peers and friends- their ages span one of the most tumultuous periods of change in a human being’s life. Adolescence and the handful of years immediately following it are a storm of physical, emotional, and cognitive changes that leave young people often feeling confused, chaotic, unmoored, and alone. Every year of the second decade of life brings new changes, new challenges, and new corresponding needs for youth of all genders.  

Recognizing this reality, Batonga has chosen to reorganize its SONAFA Leadership Clubs this month into three new distinct age groups– early adolescence 10-11-years-old, middle adolescence 12-14-years-old, and late adolescence 15-18-years-old- based not only on significant research into the developmental biology and psychology of the different stages of adolescence, but also demographic and sociological trends within our target communities.

  • The last few years of true childhood before puberty begins for most when they are ten to eleven years old, making this age critical to a child’s positive development. Children’s conceptions of themselves as unique individuals are just beginning to develop and solidify as their roles in their families and communities begin to transition as well. This is also the period during which some of the most critical social and emotional skills learning must happen. Starting at 12 years old, a process called synaptic pruning begins, in which unused neural pathways in the brain begin to be eliminated, and new neural pathways become harder to form. As such, skills and behaviors such as listening, self-motivation, teamwork, and self-confidence become significantly harder to develop after 12 years old. 
  • Early Adolescence (12-14-years-old) marks the period of time during which most adolescents experience the physical and psychological changes associated with puberty. Unfortunately, this also means that girls at this age are often beginning to be sexualized by those around them for the first time. This shift in perception, if not coupled with a supportive female mentor, peer network, and accurate health information, can dramatically and negatively impact girls’ relationship to their bodies and sexualities. There is no other period of time in a girl’s life, with the exception of infancy, that is more formative or holds as many physical and cognitive changes as early adolescence. 
  • For most girls in Benin, the last years of adolescence from 15-18, will present countless difficult choices that will have long term, lasting effects on girls’ lives. Typically most girls will have finished puberty by 15-years-old and as such will be widely viewed by their communities as women. We have found 15 to be the age at which child marriage and child bearing rates start climbing in our communities and 17 to be the age by which they begin to skyrocket. At the same time, the development of higher-level abstract reasoning skills allows girls to gain a greater understanding of their place within the political, economic, and sociological context in which they live and allows them to start looking further and further into and planning their own future. 

By reorganizing our clubs, and subsequently our curriculum content and teaching pedagogy, in order to better address the specific needs of these three age groups we hope to improve the overall SONAFA Club experience for participant girls. With more relevant targeted content, we expect to see knowledge retention be markedly improved. Through this change, we also hope to see steady improvements in weekly attendance and longer term retention increase as the clubs develop even stronger senses of community and purpose through their more unified identities and experiences. 

Consider the riotous spectrum of experiences from your own adolescence and how quickly your perception of the world around you changed from year to year. The dramatic difference between the life of a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, even ones who may share a village, a school, perhaps even a grade cannot be overstated. Adolescents are a vibrant, heterogeneous spectrum of individuals who cannot be effectively served with one-size-fits-all programming. From the way they play to the way they process complex information, each component part of programming for adolescents needs to be designed with intention, reflecting on the unique challenges and needs that each stage of adolescence presents. Without this thoughtful, intentional design we risk not only delivering critical content too late to some but we risk driving some girls who aren’t being appropriately engaged for their age away from programming all together. 

Keep up to date on the latest news happening with Batonga and learn more about how we have intentionally adapted our programming for the varied needs of each phase of adolescence through joining Batonga’s mailing list here.

By: Caitlin Hone, Batonga Program Officer