Syrian girls guide tweens through the mysterious world of puberty

  • Nagham, 17, and Areej, 15, lead a session on puberty to tweens inside Jordan's Za'atari Camp. Through the WISE Girls programme, adolescent girls develop their own reproductive health sessions in a space designed by them. ALL PHOTOS: Jana Qazzaz/Mercy Corps
  • Girls brainstorming ideas for the storybook during the prototyping phase.
  • Adolescent girls read "Jazirat Al Zohoor," which translates to "The Island of Flowers," to teach tweens about menstruation.
  • A 13 year old cracks up talking about growing armpit hair in a health session.
  • "I was shy to even talk about my period with my mother but ever since these sessions I've been more open about these things and our relationship has gotten better." – Wi'am, 17, designer of "Jazirat Al Zohoor"
  • "I sent the story to Syria with one of my family members for my cousins to read." – tween girl after session in Za'atari

"I asked my mum about the period, she only told me it's blood." – 11-year old Syrian girl

Download case study here ▸

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 programme 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 centre 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 programme 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.

For more information on girls' empowerment and SRH work in Jordan, contact Zena Itani, Adolescents, Gender and Protection Specialist

Read Ayah's blog post about WISE Girls ▸

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