Trust and accountability are essential for any program — and especially a comprehensive sexuality education program — to survive and thrive.
One particular tool has become wildly successful in improving our responsiveness and engagement with our partner school students, parents, and administrators: our “EKO” magazines. These magazines are read by thousands of our local constituents a year — and, in return, we have received hundreds of comments a month that have pivotally shaped our work.
The Impetus for a Paper Magazine
We deliver our comprehensive sexuality education program in 148 primarily rural communities. We reach over 56,000 students a year. Ensuring transparent, regular communication with community members — especially students’ parents — is a challenge, especially when 80% of Madagascar’s population lacks access to electricity, radios, Facebook, or newspapers. And yet, this sustained communication is critical, given the sensitivity and risk of misinformation surrounding sexuality education.
These challenges led us to the idea of a paper magazine. It’s low-cost to print and can easily reach a large population via our Educators, who live and work in dispersed geographic areas. Each Educator only needs a small number of copies at their school, as students can check out the magazines to bring home to their families, then return them for someone else to use.
This format also allows us to be creative in our content. Most of our readers, like students and students’ parents, have lower literacy levels. Our EKO magazines are colorful and image-heavy, with clearly signposted content written in informal, simple language.
Our Educators are always telling us that their students and principals want to know when the next issue will be released — a pretty great sign that the magazine is accepted and loved by our school communities.
Inside the Pages of an EKO Magazine
In each issue of the EKO magazine, we share a mix of content designed to improve constituents’ understanding of our program. We share extracts of our curricula, write inspiring short stories about our Educators, interview school principals about why they believe in our program, and explain the rationale behind our program. We strive to use language that we know will resonate with what our communities care about. For example, we may not describe a lesson in terms of how it builds students’ “socio-emotional intelligence,” but rather in terms of how it helps them make healthy and safe decisions.
As much as possible, we embed key messages within the content — from gender equality to examples of positive parent-child communication. This is an additional avenue for impact, given that many of our readers have not directly interacted with our program (whether they be parents who haven’t attended one of our workshops, older siblings of our students, etc.).
“Before, when I had a problem, I didn’t dare share it with my parents because I was scared that they would scold me. But now, I have the confidence to share and I’m not embarrassed, because I read the story of Myriame in the EKO magazine. It was the story of a little girl in a village who had a lot of confidence and didn’t hesitate to confide in trusted adults who were able to help her. Thank you for that story!” – Message sent to us by a student
Facilitating Two-Way Communication
The EKO magazines are so much more than just a way for us to communicate with our constituents. They are a way for them to communicate with us, too. Each magazine contains a stack of blank pieces of paper. When a checked-out magazine is returned, the PJL Educator collects the messages. We include instructions in the magazine that encourage readers to send us their feedback and questions about our program.
To our surprise, this has been a smash success. In the 2022-2023 school year, we received a whopping 24,637 handwritten messages through the EKO magazines across 148 communities!
The majority of the comments we receive are from students, most of them sharing how much they appreciate the PJL Educator and our programming. We also receive hundreds of comments a year from parents, and a number from teachers and administrators at our partner schools.
A Circular Feedback Mechanism
The Educator reads the messages first every month with their partner school principal. This is a first, critical step, as it helps the school principal understand what his or her own constituents are saying. It provides the Educator and school principal with immediate feedback about the Educators’ work. It also helps us foster support for our program amongst school principals, because they hear directly from constituents how much our program is valued — a perspective that is much more influential than anything we could say or do ourselves.
The Educator then hands the messages over to our Technical Manager and Monitoring and Evaluation team.
“When I read through the comments we receive, I’m most often looking out for questions. What don’t people understand about our program? Are there any misconceptions or misunderstandings? Are there topic-specific questions that students or parents are asking? Then, I use these comments to write the next issue of the EKO.” – Tahiry, Research, Learning, and Accountability Coordinator
The EKO magazines create a feedback loop that serves to improve our communication, accountability, and responsiveness — and helps us refine a better program.
“Probably 98% of the comments we receive are overwhelmingly positive. These are really helpful not just to build morale, but to see what parts of our program people resonate to, or what qualities in our Educators they resonate with. For example, a lot of kids tell us how much they love reading books and magazines with the Educators after school. We saw that this was an important activity to them, even if to us, we didn’t think of it as a core activity. So this year, we organized a training for our Educators about how to lead group reading sessions so that we can make this activity more enriching.” – Chrystian, Technical Manager
The Measurable Impact of our Accountability Tools
When we first piloted the EKO magazines and other accountability tools in 2018 (with support from the CIVICUS Resilient Roots initiative), we measured how these mechanisms improved communities’ perceptions of our responsiveness, trust, accountability, and respect. After 18 months of using these new tools, we saw substantial increases in the percentage of students, parents, and partner school staff who rated us highly (9/10 or 10/10) on these four characteristics:
Responsiveness: 74% to 87% from baseline to endline
Trust: 67% to 85% from baseline to endline
Accountability: 52% to 80% from baseline to endline
Respect: 37% to 76% from baseline to endline
In the years since, we have unearthed other unintended positive impacts of the magazines: enhanced student knowledge and attitudes.
With our government model of CSE delivery, we closely tracked a small cohort of Educators to understand what factors (e.g., Educator motivation, gender attitudes, positive sexuality) might predict their students’ outcomes. Would students of Educators with high motivation and positive attitudes do better than students of Educators with lower motivation and negative attitudes? Not so much, it turns out. Instead, we found that students of Educators who received high numbers of EKO comments did significantly better in post-program evaluations than students of Educators who received few EKO comments! We don’t fully understand why yet — especially considering that the EKO magazines did not contain content that was specifically linked to the student knowledge surveys.
Nevertheless, it is another powerful example of how our accountability mechanisms lead to a better program. Not only that, but in our years of work delivering comprehensive sexuality education, we have never experienced opposition from the communities we work with. Our constituent accountability tools, including the EKO magazines, haven’t been a nice-to-have — they’ve become a critical part of how we scale up a high-quality comprehensive sexuality education program, one that is driven by strong demand from local communities.