Syrian Girls Guide Tweens Through the Mysterious World of Puberty
"I asked my mom about the period, she only told me it's blood." – 11-year old Syrian girl
Puberty is tough anywhere. In Za'atari refugee camp, the day a girl gets her period can be an abrupt end to childhood: adults may restrict her mobility and socializing, shutting the door on opportunity and fueling school drop out, child marriage and early pregnancy.
Young girls in Za'atari turn to older teens to understand their changing bodies, but there is a lack of accurate, positive and adolescent-friendly information. Through Wisdom and Information on Sexual Health Education by Girls — WISE Girls — nine Za'atari teenagers decided to design and lead their own puberty education program for tween girls. At its heart is the girl-authored storybook, Jazirat Al Zohour (Island of Flowers), which blends reproductive health education, peer support and leadership skills in a fun way for tweens.
What helps girls to dream up, create and lead sexual and reproductive health (SRH) solutions? Human-centred design (HCD), an approach refined by our partner IDEO.org that Mercy Corps uses to put girls at the center of our work in Jordan.
Over a year, Mercy Corps worked through HCD stages with Za'atari teens to identify SRH education gaps, then prototype, test and iterate solutions. The girls chose a solution that fits their needs — the story of Zahra, a Syrian girl who gets her period and is taken on a magical journey to learn how and why she is changing and who to ask for support.
The teenagers read the story aloud to spellbound groups of 11 - 13-year-olds, acting out the characters and engaging the tweens with games and quizzes. Blood, breasts, body hair — nothing is off-limits in these storytelling sessions for girls, by girls. Sessions end with emoji ratings and a charge to share the story with other girls and family members.
The teen educators are helping over 120 tweens safely navigate menstruation and have sparked organic growth of SRH storytelling and information sharing in the camp. The HCD process has helped girls build assets and agency in the program and in their households.
The onset of puberty presents a valuable opportunity for girls to educate and support each other, and to build confidence, voice and leadership skills. HCD and flexible funding partnerships are proving to be catalysts for girls’ empowerment and gender-intentional SRH solutions.