SMASH Adolescent Girls Community of Practice (SAG-CoP)’s response to COVID-19 in Mwanza, Tanzania: Strategic Communication, Adaptive Restructuring, and Prioritizing Sustainability (Part 8, Covid-19 Response Series)

by Sono Recovatus and Samantha Berg

About SAG-CoP
In early 2017, a group of 16 like-minded NGOs and CBOs in the Mwanza region of Tanzania came together to form the SMASH Adolescent Girls Community of Practice (SAG-CoP). Coordinated by a Task Force of representatives

from a number of the participating organizations, SAG-CoP is committed to working with and addressing the needs of the multiple segments of girls and young women in the area. In its first three years, SAG-CoP has prioritized sharing experiences, knowledge, and tools; networking; strengthening advocacy; influencing girl-related policy; and supporting girl-led programming. Population Council has worked with SAG-CoP on the latter to provide technical assistance and capacity strengthening for girl-centered programming.

As SAG-CoP and its partners prepared for an upcoming year of programming at the end of 2019, they had no idea that in a few months, their work plans would change so drastically.

Initial Response
COVID-19 erupted in Tanzania in early 2020, sending the country into lockdown by mid-March. Schools were closed, community activities were restricted, and gatherings of more than five people were prohibited. Despite these measures, it was clear only a few weeks later that COVID-19 was spreading through community transmission.

Map of Mwanza City wards detailing where 13 of the 17 members of the SMASH Adolescent Girls Community of Practice can be found. Provided by SMASH.

Woman washing hands using SAG-CoP’s handwashing station, with soap made by girls trained in soap-making methods. Photo Credit: SAG-CoP.

With pre-planned activities fully disrupted, SAG-CoP seamlessly pivoted
its workplans to address the pandemic’s impact in the Mwanza region and
specifically on adolescent girls and young women. The group recognized
the need for improved health communication, so they established a
working group to share information about the outbreak, including how coronavirus spreads, prevention measures, and steps to inform others.
This working group identified a number of girls and key informants throughout the region who have consistent access to phones and enlisted them to help disseminate this crucial information to their communities and networks. Additionally, SAG-CoP knew that the lockdown would have a greater impact on families living in poverty, so the group produced and

delivered Family Support Packages that were full of food, masks, hand sanitizer, and handwashing soap.

Looking Ahead
After its initial response to COVID-19, SAG-CoP began shifting to long-term action that is needed to maintain sustainable programming. The group has established a five component plan to continue to address the current outbreak and ensure that programming can withstand future emergencies:

  1. Prepare an emergency plan at the organizational level. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, most of SAG-CoP’s participating organizations did not have preparations in order for future emergencies. Now, each organization has an emergency plan and strategy in place at all times.
  2. Advance technical and digital capabilities and activities. With in-person activities either canceled or severely restricted, SAG-CoP is taking this opportunity to strengthen digital connection and ensure current and future programs have adequate funding for technical budgets. For example, the group is provisioning more phones and tablets to key informants and community agents, which is especially important given the reliance on this technology to raise awareness about COVID-19 transmission and prevention measures.
  3. Create and facilitate materials for mixed-media messaging. In addition to utilizing key informants to spread messaging, SAG-CoP is also utilizing local radio broadcasting to reach girls. Through this initiative, SAG-CoP is disseminating information related to COVID-19 as well as other programming, inviting health and gender experts to help deliver key messages. Additionally, girls and other community members can call into the radio programming, asking questions and receiving answers in real time.

4. Coordinate visual workshops and trainings. SAG-CoP established an internal    coordination team, referred to as the Task Force, that meets digitally twice a month to organize trainings. So far, the Task Force has developed virtual workshops for mentors to build skills and gain knowledge around handwashing, mask sewing, home gardening, and more.
5. Maintain regular programming with Girl Mentors and Community Activists. While COVID-19 forced several necessary changes to workplans and operations, SAG-CoP recognizes the importance of maintaining programming for mentors as best as possible. With adolescent girls and young women hit hardest by this emergency, it is especially crucial that girl-centered programming continues, utilizing the tools and evidence that lead to successful outcomes.

Masks being made by Girl Mentors. Photo Credit: SAG-CoP.

In addition to the five component plan, SAG-CoP is in the process of establishing an online monitoring and evaluation system in partnership with Save the Children that will allow them to track their programming and how information is flowing. This system will also help SAG-CoP to identify gaps in programming and reach.

Challenges and Advice
While the monitoring and evaluation system is still under development, SAG-CoP is already aware of one major consequence of the pandemic that they have not been able to address: increased physical and sexual violence. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, SAG-CoP used safe houses for girls and women who were experiencing violence. However, these spaces were forced to temporarily close during the lockdown. While SAG-CoP members are still exchanging information and potential options to address this violence, the group is still struggling to provide the emergent support that many need.

As SAG-CoP continues to work diligently to continue supporting the multiple segments of adolescent girls and young women within the Mwanza region, they also reflect on the work they’ve done thus far, recognizing the importance of two key strategies:

  1. Focus on preventative measures. By concentrating resources to spreading awareness about COVID-19 transmission and prevention, SAG-CoP prepared girls and their communities to take on the pandemic. Now, there are only a few cases of COVID-19 in the Mwanza region.
  2. Strengthen digital connectivity. There are many challenges to relying on digital communication – this requires not just owning a cell phone or digital device, but also having access to charging stations, Internet, and more. However, programming needs to continue in order to maintain progress and not lose ground. Thus, organizations and programs need to prioritize strengthening the digital connectivity in their communities to create sustainable programming moving forward.

For more information on SAG-CoP, please visit: