In the Sahel region of West Africa, extensive poverty and inequality hinder social and economic stability and development. Recurring conflicts, epidemics, natural disasters, and gender inequity perpetuate these challenges. Faced with risks such as famine and forced migration, women and girls are particularly disadvantaged. Economic growth is key for the region yet stalled by rapid population growth and high fertility rates.

The World Bank’s Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) initiative seeks to address these issues by accelerating the demographic transition and reducing gender inequality, with three main goals:

  1. “Generate demand for reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health, and nutrition (RMNCHN) services by promoting social and behavioral change and women’s and adolescent girls’ empowerment;
  2. Reinforce the regional availability of RMNCHN commodities and qualified health workers; and
  3. Reinforce advocacy and dialogue at high levels and promote policy development and the project’s implementation” (UNFPA, 2016, 4)
SWEDD aims to address high rates of early marriage and pregnancy, and the need for increased family planning education and resources.

The initiative aims to increase girls’ and young women’s access to safe spaces, life skills, education, health care and contraception, employment, and training, ultimately advancing the Sahel region into a position to reap a demographic dividend and greater prosperity.

The Population Council was recruited by UNFPA’s West and Central Africa Regional Office to provide technical assistance and implementation support to Component 1.2 of SWEDD: empowering girls living in poverty by expanding the range of choice and opportunities available to them and their families, with the goal of improving the viability and desirability of delays to marriage and childbearing.

The goal of the Population Council’s involvement with SWEDD is to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of SWEDD programming in the six original SWEDD countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) along with three new SWEDD countries (Benin, Cameroon, and Guinea) to ensure lessons from the first phase are informing the continuation and expansion of activities under SWEDD II.

The initial aim is to strengthen the capacity of SWEDD’s implementing partners to address implementation bottlenecks and improve evidence-based decisionmaking, cross-learning, and accountability across the region. Under SWEDD II, the Council supports countries to promote evidence-informed Espaces Sûrs (Safe Spaces) programming as coverage expands through activities such as strengthening and disseminating guidance materials to improve standardization and quality; and monitoring, evaluation, and learning. We also seek to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on adolescent girls and young women in the region.

The Council assists SWEDD leaders, managers, and implementing partners to:

  • Build capacities of implementing partners and support evidence-generation to ensure retention of girls in school
  • Strengthen the capacities of SWEDD Coordinating Units and implementing partners to utilize the Guide on Safe Space Minimum Standards and revised Espaces Sûrs curricular materials through training, ongoing coaching, and technical support
  • Contribute to a UNFPA SWEDD regional campaign against COVID-19
  • Strengthen monitoring, evaluation, and learning practices and documentation of best practices in safe spaces

During Phase I in early 2020, the Council conducted a series of in-country needs assessments of SWEDD girl-centered activities, which provided the basis for prioritizing technical inputs. In Phase II, the Council’s SWEDD support team works with country SWEDD managers to identify solutions to priority challenges such as ensuring adequate mentor training and supportive supervision, coordinating SWEDD’s multicomponent activities within the same communities, integrating safe spaces for girls and young women with Husbands’/Future Husbands’ Clubs, exploring activities to address GBV, and strengthening MEL.

Achievements to date include uncovering implementation bottlenecks in the six original SWEDD countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger); addressing implementation challenges based on needs assessments; documentation of good practices to enable cross-country learning; and dissemination of programmatic materials. Through inputs to high-level SWEDD Regional Meetings, the Council advocated with the World Bank and regional stakeholders for SWEDD II to integrate core girl-centered concepts such as segmented planning to take into account the heterogeneity of girls and young women. By contributing to the intentional design of SWEDD II, the Council will be better able to scale girl-centered programming with quality.

Collaborations with SWEDD management teams in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger strengthen their capacity in key programmatic domains such as MEL, and the Council contributes to plans on research and evaluation, GBV response, mentor training and recruitment, and the effects of COVID-19 on adolescent girls.

SWEDD actors will have stronger capacity to oversee and implement evidence-informed programming as coverage expands, and they will have access to user-friendly materials to improve implementation and MEL of girl-centered activities. Intentional identification of expansion communities and refined recruitment strategies may improve targeting as coverage expands.

Better coordination between SWEDD subcomponents may promote synergies between activities such as safe spaces, economic empowerment, and Husbands’/Future Husbands’ Clubs, enhancing the likelihood of impact. As the World Bank expands the SWEDD model within the Sahel and other regions, we anticipate a broader impact from our work to strengthen aspects of the core SWEDD model.