Dial 1 for Empowerment: The Toll-Free Number Giving Nigeria's Girls Advice

From TIME - July 31, 2017

Lantana was just a child when she was forced to drop out of school and start working so her family could afford her brothers school fees. In the impoverished areas of northern Nigeria where she lives, most bus stops are thronged with young girls hawking peanuts or other snacks from buckets balanced carefully on their heads, and so she joined them. The girls are easy prey for the older men who prowl these chaotic market places. Lantana thought she had found a protector in a bus tout who regularly bought up her daily wares, until the night he lured her into a dark alley.

Many adolescent girls in Nigeria can relate to at least one element of Lantanas story; giving up school to work for their family, abused by a trusted figure, not knowing where to go for safety. Unlike those girls, however, Lantana isnt real. Yet thousands of young women are calling a free number to hear more about her fictional life, and talking to mentors on the other end of the line about what they would do if they were her.

Lantanas story is one of four tales of young heroines being used in a radical new program to help adolescent girls in Nigeria navigate the challenges of growing up in a country where low levels of female empowerment, education and employment have contributed to early marriage, a stagnating economy and, some would argue, a concomitant rise in Islamist insurgent groups like Boko Haram.

The program, called Girls Connect, uses compelling stories like that of Lantana to reach young women from across a broad spectrum of Nigerian society through the kind of interactive voice recognition software that a bank might otherwise use to address consumer queries. But unlike a bank hotline, which is designed to eliminate the need for costly human interaction, the point of Girls Connect is to get the callers to engage with a call center representative who can help them process the information and use it in their daily lives. Its kind of like calling a toll-free bank line to get the latest foreign exchange rates, only to be connected with an agent who gives out personalized advice on balancing the household budget.

When callers dial in, they are offered a menu of four stories, with four chapters each, to choose from. Once they listen to the 2-3 minute dialogueperformed by professional radio actorsthey are connected to specially-trained agents, which the company calls Role Models. The 13 agentsall womenwork off a standardized script that is designed to help callers internalize the lessons that Lantana and her fellow characters learn the hard way.

By asking questions such as Is this something that someone you know has experienced before? or If you thought a girl was put in danger by someone, what advice would you give her?, the Role Models can help girls work through problems they are currently facing, or might face in the future, in subjects ranging from safety to relationships, jobs or social media.

It's really challenging being a girl in Nigeria today, says Iveren Shinshima, who works as a Role Model. We talk about how she can stay safe while making money. How she can budget. How she can avoid cyber bullying. Whether it comes to making money, using social media or your relationship with your environment, the message we are trying to instill is that you are valuable as a girl.

The buzzing call center where these phone calls come in by the hundreds each day is far removed from the bus stops where girls like Lantana are forced to work. A five-story building crammed with uniform gray cubicles and staffed by fashionable Nigerian millennials in identical headsets, the iSON BPO International Call Center of Ibadan, in southeastern Nigeria, is the cornerstone of a booming new business in back-office outsourcing run by Indian entrepreneur Ramesh Awtaney. The center manages customer care lines for several Nigerian banks and telecom companiesand now adolescent girls.The idea arose from a chance meeting between Awtaney and Farah Ramzan Golant, the London-based CEO of Girl Effect, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to ending poverty through empowering young women. Nearly half of iSONs 10,000 employees in Africa are women, and Awtaney wondered if there was a way to use his call center services to benefit Africas young women.

In the customer service industry we try and resolve your problem by putting you in touch with an automated machine. If the machine cant help, you are connected to an agent, Awtaney tells TIME. So the thinking was that we could replicate this process for girls in the context of giving them information on relationships, medical problems, education, and social media, etcetera. It was an unlikely marriage between the tech and the non-profit fields, with the tantalizing prospect of wide reachthe holy grail of cost effective girl-empowerment programs. What was interesting about it was how, like an interactive customer service program, Girls Connect can be scaled up very rapidly, Golant says. If you combine this content with toll free numbers, the impact can be huge.


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