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Life skills programmes for children and adolescents

Last edited: December 13, 2013

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  • Life skills programmes are those that seek to build capacity of individuals to make decisions and take actions that positively impact their lives and the lives of those around them.  A primary goal is to promote psychological as well as physical well-being. One popular example of a life skills intervention is programming that seeks to empower youth to make responsible and healthy choices regarding reproductive health issues, particularly related to the risk of HIV.  Life skills programming also shows promise as a VAWG prevention strategy, insofar as life skills can address both the individual and interpersonal issues which inform the perpetration of violence (McCauley et. al., 2010).   While life skills programming related to VAWG is relatively new to conflict-affected settings, there are a isolated examples from which to build a broader base of practice.
  • Conflict settings can expose youth to a toxic mix of violence, poverty, and idleness.  Without viable solutions and/or positive role models, youth are at risk of embracing militarized ideologies and perpetuating a cycle of violence in their relationships and communities.   On the other hand, when given sufficient support and resources youth can be important participants and leaders in all processes of reconstruction. 
  • Reaching young boys and girls through life skills programmes – both within and outside of the education system – provides an opportunity to develop leadership abilities, provide vocational training, and integrate elements of empowerment for girls and young women.  These programmes help to shift cultural norms and create social change for the next generation of children.  The following are guidelines to consider when implementing programmes for children and adolescents (adapted from McCauley et. al, 2010).
    1. Life skills and leadership education programmes that address VAWG must be firmly rooted in theories of youth development, violence prevention and health behaviour change.
    2. Conduct a situational analysis or needs assessment before programme development to understand the needs and wants of a community and determine whether infrastructure exists or must be developed.
    3. Provide safe spaces for girls to meet, learn, build community and develop skills.


Case Study:  Haiti Adolescent Girls Network, “Espas Pa Mwen” Program

In 2010, the Haiti Adolescent Girls Network created a program called “Espas Pa Mwen”—“My Space” in Creole—to address the problem, in their words, of “missing the emergency” that adolescent girls experienced in post-earthquake Haiti. Many adolescent girls expressed never feeling unconditionally safe, and had no space where they could express themselves. Without this infrastructure, adolescent girls would not be able to build much-needed social capital and economic assets. Through “Espas Pa Mwen” programs at 17 sites, established by over 40 participating organizations, over 550 adolescent girls spend a few hours a week meeting peers, learning, and playing. With 36 trained mentors from their communities, they focus on their interests, skill building, and each other.

Mentors are available at all hours and provide a safe connection between adolescent girls and society. They help adolescent girls access services, negotiate family situations, and navigate school settings and unsafe communities. They also deliver core program content, including 30 hours of materials in French and English in the areas of Sexual and Reproductive Health, Leadership, Community Engagement, Preventing and Addressing Violence, Psycho-social Support, Financial Literacy, and Water and Sanitation. The Network Coordinator develops this material, organizes resources, and offers technical support. To realize this dedicated approach to adolescent girls, international NGOs mobilized their resources and the Haiti Adolescent Girls Network established a small grant fund to support grassroots and local organizations, stipulating that they pay mentors a stipend and create spaces dedicated to adolescent girls.

After its first year, “Espas Pa Mwen” leaders identified several lessons:

  • A collaborative learning environment must be carefully built, as organizations in emergency contexts do not often come together with a sense of shared trust.
  • A network coordinator is vital to managing multiple actors at various levels.
  • The number of participating organizations making a leap into adolescent girl-centered programming is as important as the number of participating adolescent girls, as it signals transformation in organizational culture.
  • Defining catchment areas—in some cases, conducting house-to-house surveys using GPS technology—enables targeted recruitment. Demand-led recruitment may bypass important segments of adolescent girl populations who may be less visible.
  • Adolescent girls responded to a program mixture in health, social, and economic skills building, and demonstrated interest in financial literacy content.
  • The Haiti Adolescent Girls Network insists that mentors be paid a stipend, recognizing that young women are an important resource and should be compensated, and that they often face the same pressures as the adolescent girls they serve. This provoked resistance from organizations accustomed to volunteer mentors.
  • A defined meeting space should guarantee both physical security and aural privacy. Network members typically designate locations to be dedicated for adolescent girls’ use for specific periods of time.

For more information see the IRC dedicated page on the Espas Pa Mwen Programme.


Source: Excerpted from Siddiqi, A. 2012.Missing the Emergency: Shifting the Paradigm of Relief to Adolescent Girls.” The Coalition for Adolescent Girls. p. 6.).


4. Consider whether a school-based model or a model that targets out-of-school youth is more appropriate for the target population.  Include an analysis of cost, infrastructure in the target population, and overall goals of the programme.

5. As VAWG is rooted in cultural norms that are enacted through interpersonal relationships, a strategy must be developed to engage community members beyond the target population (e.g. families of adolescent girls).  Incorporating mass media is a viable strategy to catalyze social norms change.

6.Include youth in the development of the programme if peer-education and youth involvement is critical to the implementation of the programme.  Collaboration with Youth Serving Organizations (YSOs) may provide valuable access to youth and youth friendly spaces in which the programme may be implemented.

7.Life skills education may be most effective if combined with livelihoods programmes such as employment, vocational or credit programmes that promote long-term sustainability.

8.Clearly develop a strategy for programme retention that is specific to the needs of adolescent girls in the target community.  Many girls face difficulty regularly attending programmes due to their responsibilities at home and in the community and due to the risk of experiencing abuse on their way to and from school.

9. All life skills programmes should be thoroughly monitored and evaluated for effectiveness so research can inform the development of future life skills programmes.  Evaluated life skills programmes, specifically those that address VAWG, are limited.


Case Study:  Preventive Activities and Training that Work for At-Risk Youth (PATHWAY)

This programme was designed and implemented by the American Refugee Committee (ARC), which operated between 2005 – 2007 in Guinea’s Forest Region, with financial support from USAID. The project aimed to promote reconciliation and reduce conflict in Guinea’s border regions, an area marked with high levels of violence against women, by equipping youth with conflict prevention-oriented life-skills trainings.  Further, PATHWAY facilitated access to economic opportunities for at-risk youth by removing the economic incentives for conflict.

One of the overarching objectives of the programme was for youth to resist participating in violence. This goal was achieved through two main sub-objectives: (1) economic incentives and (2) developing youth coping skills and positive attitudes.  The first sub-objective was achieved by identifying master artisans to take on apprentices as well as selecting local economic and educational organizations to train or employ youth.  Over 1,000 youth were trained by the master artisans and included skills such as carpentry, tailoring, hairdressing, and electronics. The second sub-objective, focusing on coping skills, positive attitudes, and skills to deal with life, was addressed through life-skills training modules based on the results of a needs assessment.  The modules were delivered by 14 master trainers recruited by ARC.  Module 1 included concepts such as self-awareness, identifying personal strengths, developing positive attitudes, and building healthy relationships.  The second and third modules addressed conflict prevention and self-reliance, including business skills.  The fourth and fifth modules concentrated on the health and well-being and community leadership including decision-making and conflict-management, respectively.  The Master Trainers delivered these modules through role plays, group discussions, and other training methods to 250 youth animators who, in turn, delivered the modules to 5,000 youth beneficiaries, divided into groups of 20-25 people for a total of twenty hours of training.  A noted challenge to the programme was low female participation in debates and discussions.  As such, the youth animators were trained on how to engage participants who were shy or unassertive, with a particular focus on encouraging girls.  Overall, however, only 25% of the youth that participated in PATHWAYS were female.

Over two years, a total of 11,000 youth, aged 16-35 years, were reached with these life skills training modules. The programme received promising results with over half of the participants reporting an improvement of overall conflict prevention behaviour and a lower rate of poverty.  In year one and two, 36% and 58% of youth, respectively, also reported an increase in GBV awareness and an overall decrease in reported incident cases of domestic or sexual violence. 


For more information on the PATHWAY Program, see a full report.


Source: McCauley, H., Falb, K., & Silverman, J. 2010. “Addressing Gender-Based Violence Through Life Skills and Leadership Education Among Adolescent Girls in Africa: Technical Review for the International Rescue Committee.”  


Additional Resources:

Promoting and Protecting Adolescent Girls (Women’s Refugee Council) power point.

Promoting the Protection and Empowerment of Girls in Dadaab, Kenya (International Rescue Committee and Population Council) power point and toolkit.  

Economic Strengthening to Mitigate Risk of GBV for Adolescent Girls in Emergencies (UNICEF and Women’s Refugee Commission) power point.

Dancing in the Storm: A Girls Empowerment Framework in Zimbabwe (UNICEF) power point.