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Girl voice and meaningful participation: intersections and implications for evaluation

By Sarah Dickins

Girlguiding UK

Girlguiding is the UK’s largest youth organisation dedicated completely to girls, with around 370,000 members. We help girls know they can do anything, whether they’re 4 or 18 or in between. We show them a world of possibilities, big and small. We help them think big and be bold in a space where they can be themselves, get creative, explore, and have fun. We’re a powerful collective voice – with girls, led by girls – changing the world for the better. 

At Girlguiding, our commitment to amplifying girls’ voices shapes how we work. Our advocacy work is led by the advocates, a panel of young members aged 14 to 25 who act as spokespeople for Girlguiding, talking to UK Members of Parliament and other changemakers on issues that affect girls. Our youth steering group, Amplify, feeds back on internal work and processes, making sure girls’ experiences and preferences are heard at the highest levels of our organisation.

But what are the implications for monitoring and evaluation? How can we understand meaningful participation in the context of girl voice? And how can girl voice enhance and innovate evaluation processes?

What’s meaningful about participation?

‘Meaningful participation’ has become a widespread term since the popularisation of participatory evaluation approaches in the 1990s. Perhaps more than other types of evaluation, this term encompasses a range of understandings, experiences and techniques. Nuanced, context-sensitive and flexible by definition, there are almost as many definitions of meaningful participation as there are participatory evaluations themselves. 

UNICEF’s Methodological Brief on participatory approaches notes, for example, just a few of the areas in which meaningful participation can differ from context to context, including “a wide range of different types of participation, which differ in terms of what is understood by ‘participation’, whose participation is wanted, and what it is that those people are involved in and how”. 

For the purposes of this blog and Girlguiding’s work, however, it’s helpful to think of ‘meaningful participation’ as having two core parts: a commitment to stakeholder participation at one or more phases of an initiative or project, and a need for this participation to support the development, implementation and/or learning of an initiative or project in a genuine and purposeful way. 

Meaningful participation and girl voice

Meaningful participation also has a particular history in the context of youth-centred projects. In his 1992 article, ‘Children’s Participation: From tokenism to citizenship’, Roger Hart applied Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation to children. The principle of this ladder is simple: if people have more opportunities to participate in processes that affect them, they are more empowered to make decisions and shape a more equal future for their communities. Hart takes this ladder metaphor further, suggesting there are increasing degrees of ‘true’ participation. As our programming and evaluation become more participatory, we see an increasing shift from adult to child leadership, direction and ownership in decision-making. 

Meaningful girl-centred evaluation involves investing in girls’ leadership in strategic planning and evaluation processes. 

So what does this mean in the context of girl and young women-centred initiatives? Whilst the principles of Hart’s framework are still relevant, there are additional considerations. Intersectional feminism argues that we interact with global power structures differently based on our unique combined experiences of gender, age, ethnicity, disability, class, religion and other factors. Using this lens, we can see that girls and young women face the overlapping challenges of being female and being young – as well as their many and varied experiences of discrimination based on ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic deprivation. And Girlguiding’s research suggests that girls’ experiences are getting worse. Our 2023 Girls’ Attitudes Survey reveals girls’ happiness levels have significantly declined over the past 15 years, with only 17% of girls aged 7-21 stating they feel very happy, compared to 40% in 2009. 

At Girlguiding, we try to make our girl-centred evaluations sensitive to this context. This includes evaluation practices, such as cross-disaggregating data by gender, age, ethnicity and disability; and promoting ‘brave spaces’ in focus groups, workshops and interviews, where girls are encouraged to challenge, innovate and co-create evaluation processes in a psychologically safe and confidential environment. Importantly, too, meaningful girl-centred evaluation involves investing in girls’ leadership in strategic planning and evaluation processes. 

One example of this work is in the development of our 2020+ Strategy, which consulted with over 50,000 girls, young women, volunteers, parents and carers, and staff. As part of this process, Girlguiding developed and delivered participatory workshops with over 1250 girls aged 5-18. Outcome mapping activities were ‘gamified’ in age-appropriate ways, for example, girls in the Rainbows section (ages 5-7) and the Brownies section (ages 7-10) were asked to help a fictitious ‘Cecil the snake’ find her colourful stripes, by identifying the things that make Girlguiding unique and special. Girls aged 10-18 in the older sections, Guides and Rangers, explored outcomes and areas of improvement by workshopping what the values and principles of a fantasy future Girlguiding might be. 

In both cases, data and lessons learnt from these participatory workshops has been used to shape Girlguiding’s subsequent evaluation agenda and frameworks, including our organisational theory of change and flagship 2023 impact report – which highlighted that Girlguiding girls are up to 23% more confident than UK girls not in guiding. The importance of empowering girls to lead and shape programmes was also highlighted in this consultation, contributing to the creation of Amplify, our youth steering group, who not only provide youth leadership in our organisational governance, but also deliver their own monitoring and evaluation of youth-led governance through self- and group reflection.

Integrating girl voice into evaluation: task, timing and tone

So, finally, how can girl voice be successfully integrated into participatory evaluation? At the end of 2022, we asked Amplify what made girls’ participation in focus groups more participatory and engaging. They gave a range of ideas, which can be summarised as the ‘task’, ‘timing’ and ‘tone’ of evaluation.

First, meaningful girls’ participation in evaluation needs a suitable task. The key to meaningful participation is that it’s purposeful: you may need to hear from girls to make the evaluation more accurate, to empower girls further through evaluation, to build long-term relationships or to fulfil our strategic commitments. Whatever your reasoning, you need a clear idea of why you want to involve girls in your evaluations and, therefore, who it’s best to involve. This means being intentionally inclusive in inviting and enabling girls from a range of backgrounds, especially those who are most marginalised or those who are most affected by any issues your evaluation addresses. 

Second, meaningful girls’ participation needs to be well-timed. This principle is about working with girls to find appropriate moments for them to participate in evaluations. This means respecting that girls and young women often have many competing priorities for their time and energy, as well as thinking fully about the various and iterative stages of evaluation that girls can be meaningfully involved in, from design, to data collection, analysis and socialisation of findings.

Thirdly, meaningful girls’ participation needs to be given an empowering tone. Adult facilitators should use respectful, non-patronising language throughout, both minimising jargon and explaining relevant technical concepts in age and context-appropriate ways. When reporting findings, relay the girls’ thoughts respectfully and, where appropriate, using the original terms and phrasing, as these may have been carefully chosen by the girl to convey their perspective. And finally, it’s always important to give credit where credit is due, acknowledging and celebrating where girls have contributed to your evaluation design, process and findings. 

In this way, meaningful girl participation benefits both evaluation and the girls themselves. It not only provides more accurate, creative and complete findings, it also builds long-term, respectful relationships and enables Girlguiding’s mission: to help girls know they can do anything. 


Sarah Dickins is a monitoring, evaluation and learning specialist who has spent the last decade working with girls and other young people around the world. She’s passionate about how participatory evaluation can empower communities. At Girlguiding UK, she delivers the Insight team’s longitudinal quasi-experimental impact study. Connect with Sarah via LinkedIn.



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