Commentary: Mentors May Be Key for Girls Returning to School Amid a Pandemic

ARUSHA, Tanzania — On June 29, Tanzania became the first East African country to reopen schools for all students. As the head of the Girls Livelihood and Mentorship Initiative (GLAMI), I was nervous. This year, more than 6,500 girls participated in the extracurricular mentoring programs we provide in northern Tanzania.

GLAMI’s robust, evidence-based mentorship programs teach resilience, problem solving and confidence — all skills we knew our girls could utilize to endure this crisis. But would that be enough to keep them focused on their goals and on returning to their education over a three-month break?

Typically, we see a drop in the rate of return of girls to school after normal school breaks. COVID-19 closures lasted far longer than the average school holiday. That, and an April report issued by the Malala Fund predicting that as many as 20 million secondary school girls faced either an end or serious delay to their education, gave our entire team serious cause for concern.

Schools have now been open for two months, and GLAMI has only recorded 32 cases of girls dropping out of school. Or to put it another way: Out of our entire program enrollment this year, more than 99% of our scholars returned to their education in June. That figure is remarkable. It is also a percentage far higher than what we typically see after a school holiday. We attribute it to the swift action we took to quickly adjust our programming and build on the deep connections between our girls and their mentors immediately after schools closed.

As part of efforts during the past two years to improve communication with parents of girls in our programs, contact information is now on file for nearly 6,000 families. That enabled our mentors to make and track regular contacts by phone and text while schools were closed, tallying 18,000 phone calls and more than 193,608 text messages in under three months.

Our mentors formed WhatsApp study groups so girls could keep their knowledge fresh and prepare together for forthcoming exams. Study materials were printed and distributed. Textbooks were purchased and given to girls who needed them to prepare for final exams.

We also established two toll-free hotlines so girls could reach their mentors and request additional support without using their personal funds. Those hotlines also helped connect girls who faced serious and urgent situations, from food insecurity to violence and threats of being married off by families looking for one less mouth to feed.

When the Tanzanian government announced in June that schools would reopen, GLAMI stepped in to respond to the concerns expressed by many headmasters at our 40 partner schools, who needed help to ensure the academic environment would reopen as safely as possible for all students. We worked quickly to provide handwashing stations, soap, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and even thermal scanners.

Preparing for a global pandemic was never something we set out to do. But we have come to realize that because we have always been prepared to provide for our scholars, and that the deep, personal relationships developed with our girls, their parents and the headmasters at our partner schools have always sat at the heart of what we do – we could swiftly and effectively respond in this crisis.

We know that our mentoring programs work, because we track and measure them extensively. GLAMI’s four-year Binti Shupavu program teaches life skills to girls in lower secondary school (ages 13-18), with the goal of increasing graduation rates for vulnerable girls. And it does: 98% of our Binti Shupavu scholars graduated from lower secondary school in 2019, compared with a national average of just 69%. Our two-year Kisa Project is a leadership course that prepares young women in their last two years of secondary school (ages 17-21) to attend university and create positive change in their communities. Approximately 97% of our Kisa scholars continue on to university, compared with a national average of 3%.

[MORE: How Countries Reopened Schools Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic]

Now we are entering a new phase in our response that will build on our overall program success, taking messages from our core programs to a much larger audience. Last weekend, GLAMI launched a test pilot of a radio program to supplement in-school mentorship programming that has been scaled back due to safety. “Safari ya Binti” (A Daughter’s Journey) is a 30-minute program that incorporates the voices of our mentors and girls who have participated in our programs, sharing key lessons and actionable advice. Partner schools are promoting it widely to their entire student populations and our two radio station partners are advertising it regularly as they broadcast to eight regions of Tanzania — a reach far greater than our in-person programming currently provides. We designed this programming with our scholars in mind, but it has tremendous potential to help us scale the reach of our proven programming in ways we never imagined.

Could robust mentoring programs like ours be the key to keeping girls in school? I think so. I also believe that our holistic approach to adjusting our programming these past few months is the reason that nearly all of our girls returned to their education. And the steps we are taking with radio today will keep our programming on solid footing in the future, especially if the crisis worsens and we see another round of school closures.

This is a critical time for education, and especially for girls. But I am hopeful that the lessons we have learned from our corner of the world can help. Because if I’ve learned anything in the past few months, it is this: Only by continuing to listen, measure, adjust and keep our scholars’ needs at the center of every action we take, we will ensure that our girls continue to access the education they need, and deserve. Pandemic, or otherwise.

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Commentary: Mentors May Be Key for Girls Returning to School Amid a Pandemic originally appeared on

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