Our data elucidate participants’ perceptions of the SSAGE program’s impact on protective assets for girls. While participants reported changes in their attitudes and behaviors related to VAWG at the family level, collectively endorsed girls’ rights, and expressed a desire to bolster community protection of girls, our data also reveal circumstances where normative, patriarchal frameworks structuring the treatment of adolescent girls persisted. Overarching themes that emerged in the course of analysis are organized under the two areas of inquiry for this study: (1) attitudes and behaviours related to violence against girls within households; and (2) attitudes and beliefs about girls’ rights and protection. Subthemes within each area of inquiry emerged through a grounded theory analytic approach.
Attitudes and behaviours related to violence against girls within households
The firm aim of this research was to understand the program impact on participant attitudes and behaviours towards violence against girls at the household level. While SSAGE participants reported greater understanding of gendered power differentials, improved communication amongst family members, and decreased perpetration of violence within households, aspects of familial hierarchies that uphold male dominance were maintained.
Power and communication
Participants’ reflection on power differentials across household relationships impacted the quality of communication amongst caregivers, between caregivers and adolescents, and with siblings. In particular, male caregivers’ reflection on their power relative to their family members seemed to impact their communication style. One mentor shared a key message from the program that they felt resonated deeply with male caregivers: “If a child brings a conversation to you, listen to him. Pay attention and provide affection so that you find what is wrong with him. Don’t shout at him, don’t harass him, be simple with him so tomorrow even if something happens he will be able to share it with you.” In describing perceived changes to the styles of communication used with their family members, male caregivers began to collectively express alternative masculinities embodying more egalitarian forms of manhood: “Back then we used to yell when they rushed to us when they saw us coming back home. But now we realized that was not right, we need show our children love and respect if we want them to be good in society.”
Changes to male caregivers’ communication style seemed to have broad-reaching impacts across households. Female caregivers felt that changes in their spouses’ communication style enabled shifts towards more egalitarian relationships within the family: “You see, before we didn’t sit together to make decisions, but now we do. And he also seeks my advice, too. Sometimes if I am unhappy, he wants to know what’s disturbing me, and he also does the same to his children.” Another female caregiver discussed how her husband’s increased attentiveness to his children led to his allocating extra resources for their daughter’s medical care:
So, you see, even my husband has changed a lot. Before when my children were sick, I would go and look for money to buy drugs and take care of them. With all girls and only one boy, he usually didn’t bother with their wellbeing, but everything has changed based on what he was taught in this program. Now, he asks about their wellbeing, and if they are sick, he will bring a doctor to the house to treat them. Truthfully, I am really happy. My husband now asks about our wellbeing, and that makes me happy.
Adolescent boys were also impacted by the changes in attitude and behaviour of their male caregivers. Some felt more comfortable sharing their own thoughts and emotions with their fathers: “A son can now speak with his father freely and confidently, and the father understands his children’s views and ideas…all because of this program.” Changes in the way their fathers communicated with them prompted others to reflect on how they engaged with their sisters. One adolescent boy shared, “I used to not smile at her because I thought she would underestimate me, or look down on me if I did. But I now realize that with all these angry faces, being unfriendly will never solve any problem between us. Another talked about modelling the communication style of his male caregiver when managing conflict with his younger sister: “Like before, if I talked to her, she would insult me. And when she did something like that to me, I would insult her. But now that we started coming to this program, we gained a lot from it. Now, even if she did something wrong to me, I just leave her or I tell her so she will understand and stop doing it.”
Changes in perpetration of household violence
In addition to changes in communication, participants reported decreased perpetration of violence across household relationships, following engagement with the SSAGE program. Many of the participating adolescent boys reflected on their use of violence and negative power to coerce their sisters into conforming to certain behaviours, or adhering to their requests, sharing stories about how they “used to fight, my sister and I, because I used to make her do things for me at home…. Even though I can do things by myself, I used to make her do it for me just because I didn’t want to do hard work.” SSAGE sessions such as “Power and Discrimination” and “Gender-Based Violence” impacted the boys, by fostering an environment for them to evaluate the root causes and repercussions of their use of violence against their sisters. One participant shared: “I used to force her to wash all my clothes, and I would send her to buy me soap even though she had places to go. I would forcefully stop her from going out, but after this Mercy Corps program I realized that all what I was doing was wrong.” Another participant reflected about how his previous use of violence against his sister negatively impacted their relationship: “Back then my relationship with my sister was not good because I used to shout and yell at her, and we quarrelled a lot. But when we started attending this program, we are now living peacefully and in harmony with one another. I have stopped pushing her against the wall to force her to do things for me.”
Both caregivers and adolescents reported changes in the normalization of violence against children within families. First, female caregivers overwhelmingly shared their change in opinion regarding the use of corporal punishment with their children: “Well! I learned many things in this program, for example my relationship with my children. Before I started coming to this program, I was beating my children. But after I started participating in this program, I have corrected my mistake.” Adolescents corroborated this change, remarking on the shift they observed in their caregivers’ behaviour towards them and their siblings: “They [caregivers] are learning a lot of things. When they reach home and see children fighting, they instead separate them and discipline them rightfully. And that will put us on the right path.”
In lieu of using violence to reinforce disciplinary lessons and require particular forms of behaviour from their children, many female caregivers discussed tactics highlighted in the SSAGE program including establishing open communication and active listening. These tactics of ‘good’ discipline were often framed in aggregate as ‘enlightening’ children; drawing children into discussion and establishing mutual understanding of the importance of particular behaviours for the wellbeing of the child, and the household. Participants in one focus group shared, “You can call your child and encourage him or her. Beating and insulting will never make your child good. When you enlighten your children, they will be interested to go and learn more…”.
Male and female caregivers both acknowledged a link between parental treatment of children, and children’s treatment of siblings or others in the broader community. “We discussed things like how to raise a child to be a good man, because beating a child won’t help most of the times.” Participants from another focus group expressed the importance of using nonviolent discipline with “…not just the adolescent girls, but the adolescent boys, too. Not only discipline them, but discipline them in a good way so that they can be good children in the community.”
Lastly, female participants spoke candidly about forms of intimate partner violence commonly experienced in spousal relationships across their community, including physical and emotional violence, substance abuse, and male dominance over familial resources. Many felt that the SSAGE program empowered them with knowledge to better understand risk patterns in their spouses’ behaviours, and provided them with tools to mitigate conflict. For example, they reported that the SSAGE sessions which fostered reflection about the intersection of drug/alcohol use and male violence impacted their spouses’ behaviours and reduced perpetration of IPV in the short term: “And our husbands too have really changed. Some husbands will go out and if they come back home, they won’t smile, sometimes you won’t even know when your husband goes out and when he gets angry outside, he will come home and pour the anger on you. But all this has changed when the program started.” Male caregivers also reflected on how poverty, alcohol, and drug use can interact with power differentials between husband/wife and parent/children to exacerbate violence in the family. Several men shared their realizations about the impact of their own drug use—which was often expressed as a coping mechanism for dealing with the many structural challenges faced by displaced communities—on their family. “Before when I got upset, I would normally take drugs to cool myself, which made me misbehave and led me to do bad things…. Anyone that is not in their senses can do anything. But in the end, I understand when you use something it won’t only affect your own wellbeing. From then, I stopped it, and I understand it is bad.”
Some of the participatory activities meant to spark self-awareness and empathy impacted male caregivers, causing them to self-reflect on their use of power and violence against their spouses. This mentor shared his observations on the profound impact of a ‘Push and Pull’ activity, which he facilitated with male caregivers:
So, the two participants that were involved in the activity that had to do with push and pull. After the session I invited them to share what they felt about the role play. So, the man in the role play who was pushing, said it made him realize how he, how men, when they push someone, they feel more powerful than the other person, and sometimes they just need it to feel happy. So, when I asked the other person, the one that was pushed, he said he can just imagine how his wife has always felt whenever he pushes her around, you know, whenever he acts superior over her. So, the role play is very practical and it sends the message so that it is not easy to forget. Another participant, for instance, has said that he wants to do this with his wife, that going forward, he will remember this roleplay, and he will be like, ‘Okay when you do this, it does not make you happy, because when someone did it to me during the session, I was not happy about it.
Maintenance of household hierarchies that uphold male dominance
While many participants perceived shifts towards more egalitarian and less violent relationships following the SSAGE program, the data also show instances where unequal power relations across gender and age hierarchies within households persisted. Several male caregivers felt that the functioning of their household had improved following the SSAGE program due to their children’s increased obedience and adherence to age/gender norms expected of children (particularly, female children): “But when we started attending the program, the girls started coming to us and asking about what they taught us in our part. And we would tell them to stop misbehaving, and to follow our instructions and advice.”
Similarly, several adolescent boys described how the SSAGE program reminded their younger, or female siblings to treat them with respect and deference: “If they didn’t take advice from you before, but now since they started coming to this program they will understand and start taking your advice and whatever you tell them. And you should also listen to what they have to say.”
Some adolescent girls internalized this reinforced power relation. One participant shares her perspective on why her relationship with her older brother has improved since the SSAGE program: “For instance, my brother used to ask me to do something for him and I would refuse to do it, but after attending this program if he sends me to do something I will go quickly and do it.”
Lastly, in some group discussions, male caregivers infantilized women and shared an accepted belief in women’s intellectual inferiority. This male caregiver shared his perspective on the role he needed to play in ensuring his wife understood the SSAGE program messages:
Despite the fact that peoples’ understanding differs, some people understand at once. For other people, you will repeat it and they will still not understand, especially women. Women do not understand fast, while if you tell a man once or twice, he will understand. Your woman, even if you repeat it ten times, she will not understand what you mean. Because of that, if there is any problem between us [in the household], what I will do to settle the issue is tell her: “Remember that every week we used to attend the Mercy Corps program, where they lectured us…about good household living, and our neighbours?
On a few occasions, female caregivers reflected their internalization of this stereotype themselves. One female caregiver explained, “You know, us women have a dumb head; it is not everyone that God has given wisdom.”
Attitudes and beliefs about girls’ rights and protection
A second aim of this research was to understand the program impact on household and community protection for adolescent girls. While SSAGE participants collectively endorsed adolescent girls’ rights and shared a desire to create community protective infrastructure, persisting aspects of patriarchal norms governing treatment of adolescent girls also emerged in the data.
Increased Commitment to Girls’ Rights
Female caregivers were impacted by the SSAGE program sessions on “Adolescent Girls and GBV” and “What is Violence?” Many felt that these sessions confirmed their own lived experience of violence, and further informed their understanding of the specific pathways of violence affecting adolescent girls that occur in their community. One focus group of female caregivers shared, “Everything that we were taught is the reality…like what we were taught about adolescent girls who are sent to the shop to buy some things, while the owner will be giving her things like sweets to get her attention to abuse her.”
Others felt the sessions informed their analyses of how harmful gender norms operational at the household level can increase girls’ risk of violence, such as how beliefs linking familial honour to girls’ sexual purity can influence parental responses to sexual assault. When describing the likely response of a caregiver if their daughter were to experience sexual violence in their community, one focus group participant shared: “…her parents will be quiet about it, so that the community people will not hear about it, so that they will not be disgraced.” Other participants in the focus group condemned the response of the caregivers, and pledged to “…defend and protect [girls’] rights against sexual exploitation and abuse.” Another female caregiver offered a particularly strong indictment of violence against girls, and commitment to justice for them:
As a woman, if your daughter is sexually abused, she’s not happy and the whole community is against her and putting all the blame on her. Instead, this case should be reported and justice should be done... these things do happen. Seeing the victim being seen as a bad person, people don’t want to associate with her, no man wants to marry her, and she’s scared of reporting the case so that she won’t be exposed. But it [shouldn't] be like that. Anyone who is caught sexually abusing a girl should be reported and punished, and justice should be done for the girl. When that is done, nobody would do that again.
Endorsement of Household and Community Protective Infrastructure for Adolescent Girls
Caregivers acknowledged that dangerous terrains within their communities posed different threats to adolescent girls and boys, but many expressed feeling ill-equipped to manage the myriad risks posed to their children. A SSAGE program mentor described some of the barriers caregivers face in keeping their daughters safe from violence:
…parents don’t know where to find solutions to these problems which are very rampant. So, some people may abuse adolescent girls, especially those who have power with money, or the offer of marriage. They say, if you talk about this then I will kill you, or I will send somebody to lock you up somewhere. The girls and the caregivers have fear of this. So, the participants were very happy with this child protection session because the session focused on the consequences of violence, of rape, the disadvantages of early or forced marriage of children. All these things are the consequences of types of GBV. So, we enlightened them on the consequences, and they understand the reality better. So that’s why they felt that topic and activities were meaningful.
Adolescent boys also talked about their role in protecting adolescent girls, and reflected on how their current behaviours may help or hinder their sisters access justice in the event of violence or assault. Many shared that previously they were likely to fight other young boys who physically or verbally harassed their sisters, but now they were more comfortable identifying other avenues for conflict mediation that would centre the needs of their sisters, as opposed to their own needs for retaliation against their peers. “Before, if they insulted my sister in the community, I would gather my friends to go fight them and also create serious violence in the community. But as the result of this program, I understand that is not good. I would now go and report it to security, or to our district head and tell them to take decision.”
However, despite the SSAGE program’s focus on introducing different avenues for seeking justice for victims of GBV, participants reflected on how corruption and the lack of functional justice mechanisms at the community and state level contribute to a reality where perpetrators of GBV are treated with impunity and victims have limited legal recourse: “Pertaining to gender-based violence… We have been seeing it happening. The issue is normally taken to the police, and if the perpetrator has one thousand or two thousand naira he will bail himself out.”
Given the loss of traditional, community, and institutional protective infrastructure as a result of conflict-related forced displacement that many families within Bayan Kwatas and Bullabulin have experienced, caregivers expressed a need to recreate networks of community protection inclusive of adolescent girls. They framed community protection as mobilizing other adults and elders to provide advice, guidance, and watchful oversight to keep girls safe, and prevent boys from perpetrating violence. Their suggestions reflected a desire to reconstruct a social fabric of shared responsibility for the care of children. One male caregiver shared his belief in the importance of a cohesive community to help protect, and raise, children.
It is supposed that you should correct your own [children]. I also went to my friend’s shoulder to tell her that she should correct mine too because of that. Let us come together, all of us, to make the thing right. But if we leave it like that, for everybody to correct their own, we will not get the cooperation and peace. Because we have to come together to correct for things to be good. We are supposed to bring our children under us, to show them the proper things for them to do, and what is not proper for them not to do.
In light of the absence of protective infrastructure that many participants desired to recreate, male and female caregivers heavily emphasized the role of protective parenting in maintaining the safety of their adolescent girls. Discussions about ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’ forms of parenting abounded in the data. Caregivers felt that both parents should be involved, sensitized to risk, and prepared to teach their adolescent girls to recognize situations where they may encounter violence or abuse in their external community:
Yeah, participation of both husband and wife is very important because some of the parents are so careless about their daughters. They were always proud that someone gave their daughters a phone for about 80 to 90 thousand without any reason, and she was not even engaged with anybody, but he bought her a phone. Truly, I am very glad to see that both husband and wife were also participating in this program.
This male caregiver shared his perspective on appropriate parenting tactics to reduce his children’s risk of violence:
Yes, there are things I learned…Like the time they are going to bed, and the time they will wake up. You see, monitoring activities of the children, if 10pm reached, even if I am not in that home, I will make sure I make a call to confirm if all the children are at home. I then make sure all of them are at home by that time, even if you want to travel or want to go for a place. I have to be notified that you will be going somewhere, or there is someone’s wedding you are going to attend.
Emphasis on protection can limit girls’ mobility and freedom
Heightened protection of adolescent girls was seen as a necessary precaution by caregivers, commensurate to the level of risk present within the Bullabulin and Bayan Kwatas communities. Alongside these realities, however, the unintended consequences of increased protective parenting were apparent; caregivers advocated for amplified control over girls’ behaviours, a reduction in girls’ mobility throughout their community, and further restrictions of their freedoms. When discussing the importance of preventing their daughters from going out at night – a key message gleaned from the SSAGE program—male and female caregivers framed VAWG as a primarily female problem, which could be addressed through controlling their daughters’ behaviour, restricting their movements at night, and sensitizing them to risks they may face. These male caregivers shared the perception widely held amongst participants that “there are places a female should be and places she shouldn’t be, because not every place is good for a female to be.” Female caregivers in another focus group stressed the importance of restricting their daughters’ movements after nightfall: “For the adolescent girls, we were taught not to allow them to go out once it’s late in the evening from 6 pm to prevent incidences of rape. So, we all stopped them from going out when it’s late. Once it’s 6 pm, our adolescent girls do not go out.”