day of the girl, development, girls rights, post 2015, SDGs

The rise and rise of girls

On a rainy November day in 2007, Plan UK launched a new campaign named after a report they had just published called ‘Because I am a Girl’. The launch was held at the offices of Marie Claire Magazine, and it featured Cherie Blaire as a guest speaker. At the time, global attention was firmly fixed elsewhere – it was hurricane season in the Pacific and the Dow Jones had just taken a 360 point dive, heralding an economic crisis the likes of which the world hadn’t known since The Great Depression. But in a small press reception, in the heart of London, change was afoot.

The next day a minor news story made it onto the back pages of a few papers – the UN sent home 108 of the 950 Sri Lankan peacekeepers stationed in Haiti, accusing them of sexual abuse, including with underage girls. This shocking event passed by mostly unnoticed and unremarked upon by those responsible for holding UN agencies to account. As usual, only the feminists cried in outrage, and the world kept spinning on its axis unperturbed. Girls were invisible, and so was their plight.

Around the same time the 2008 ‘Because I am a Girl’ report was published, focusing on girl’s rights in war zones. One of its main recommendations was to enforce the code of conduct for UN personnel serving in conflict and post conflict zones so that they protect, not exploit, girls and young women. Despite the topical nature of the issues discussed, the report’s call to action failed to gain significant traction with donors and policy makers. It would take yet a deeper plunge into the economic abyss in order to firmly place girls at the top of the development agenda.

In December 2009, the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos – largely heads of billion dollar corporations – were invited to a session called ‘The Girl Effect on Development’. The Davos meetings that year were focusing exclusively on the global economic crisis that had hit these corporations hard. The idea of a session that sought to encourage large scale investments in adolescent girls living in some of the poorest communities in the world seemed at odds with the economic climate. Yet, the session had sold out almost immediately.

The Girl Effect told a simple story: if you invest in adolescent girls, then fertility rates drop, children have better health outcomes, the workforce grows and becomes more productive ultimately leading to a stimulated economy. The crux of the argument was this – girls will one day be mothers, transferring their gains to their children, ensuring a multiplier and intergenerational effect will inevitably take place. This easy formula for stimulating the economy caught the attention of every business person and politician in the room and the Girl Effect video quickly went viral.

At the same time Plan’s third ‘Because I am a Girl’ report which analyzed the roles of girls and young women within the global economy, had finally hit a home run. Coming as it did on the heels of the economic crisis it offered duty bearers a clear route towards equitable distribution of wealth and assets – through an investment in girl’s education. History shows, the report argued, that when a girls are as educated as boys, economies prosper and governments remain stable.

The clarion call for girls had been made and it was echoing around the globe. Other organizations launched similar campaigns, and suddenly it seemed like everyone was talking at once. Investments increased, another Girl Effect video was released, the ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign went global and the UN passed a resolution to make October 11th the International Day of the Girl.

Girls had become central to the development agenda. Yet, it became apparent as world nations geared up to begin the Post 2015 negotiations that the real challenge was still ahead. How can the success of the ‘girl movement’ be translated into hard-hitting policy wins? For a time it seemed like the girl-focused agencies would continue to work at cross purposes, clamoring all at once about different topics, and losing ground to other, less controversial global issues. In the fight to get girls on the development agenda, the hard nut of member-state support had yet to be fully cracked.

Over the past few months, a cross section of leading girl-focused agencies agreed that this historic moment was a time when we are bigger than the sum of our parts, and combining agendas was the only way to truly make a lasting historic impact on the UN negotiations.

Have we succeeded? I believe we have. At the Summit of the Sustainable Development Goals, Malala Yousafzai gave a key-note address, and standing by her side were adolescent girls from across the globe, including girls that were part of an innovative Plan International project to empower them to be part of this historic process. By working together we have for the first time created a space where girl’s voices are welcomed and listened to, and where the issues faced by adolescent girls the world over are accepted as central to the future prosperity of human kind.

but now the real test begins. will girls be invited to take part in SDG implementation? will their voices be heard as the commitments made at the UN are translated into policy plans and agendas? We’ve come so far from that rainy afternoon, and now the world is finally listening…it’s up to all of us to ensure global attention stays firmly fixed on the next generation of leaders and change makers – adolescent girls.

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development, gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D

Where dreams are made of…

There are only three female pilots in all of Kenya. Sharon’s mother is the one of them. She tells me about her life, and her family, in a very direct manner as we sit down for a short interview in Nairobi. I spent four days with Sharon, and a dozen other girls, as part of a workshop to build advocacy and campaigning skills. For the most part the girls came from low-income backgrounds, yet they were all part of national children’s assembly’s and had significant experience in speaking out on issues that are important for adolescent girls and boys. As is the case sometimes, the girls had the knowledge of the issues, and the passion to put them on the agenda, but lacked the tools to do so effectively.

the whole group

Sharon addresses the group

Sharon says she feels she has more opportunities than her mother had, despite her mother’s educational achievements and nontraditional job. Sharon insists things are getting better for girls, and there are more chances for her to ‘make it’ through education, especially higher education. I have heard these kinds of aspirations before from many girls all over the world; however, what took me by surprise is Sharon’s ambition (which was shared by a few other girls) to become a journalist. Her understanding of the role of the press in holding decision makers to account was a new (and very welcome) development from the usual ‘I want to be a teacher’ trope. I have no hard evidence of this, but I suspect new forms of media have brought the press closer to the people, and this has obviously been an inspiration to many. What more could a robust democracy hope for? still, girls expressed their concern in not knowing the best avenues to use for getting their voices heard by the right people.

The girls in the workshop knew that the main issue affecting girls in their community are concerned with personal safety and protection from violence. The sense was that girls were left unprotected by the authorities who are meant to ensure their safety, and despite legislation, weak implementation mechanisms, gender stereotypes and traditional norms, are conspiring against them. many felt that they know what the problem is – but not how to fix it.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the existing protective structures and laws, and then broke down the main influencers who could address this issue and raise it on a national agenda. We spent time developing good campaigning skills, including public speaking, media training, and thinking about how we deliver a message so it’s effective, and speaks to both hearts and minds.

everyone loves the flipcams

everyone loves the flipcams

All these skills will be put to the test later in the project for most girls. however, two girls were selected (through democratic elections) to represent the group in the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women in NY. As we head to the city where dreams are made of I wonder what impact the girls will have on the people they meet, and whether the strength of their influence will come from these newly acquired skills, or will it be the authenticity of being an adolescent girl growing up in poverty and facing discrimination firsthand which gives them greater clout?

To be continued….

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day of the girl, development, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

It’s a feminist thing

There is wall to wall support and praise for awarding Malala Yousafzai the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And yet, it seems to me that her struggle for girl’s rights has not been linked in our collective consciousness, nor in public statements, with feminism. And that’s a huge fail on all accounts.

On the eve of the International Day of the Girl I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which feminism has stayed a Western concept while the engine of development has given rise to a notion of women’s/girl’s rights that is entirely divorced from the ideas of gender justice.

So, why do we even celebrate a day for girls? there’s already a day for women, a day for children and a day for challenging violence against women. why girls? the answer is simple – because they are not women yet, but they are no longer children. for so many girls, childhood is cut short by puberty. As Helena Minchew from the International Women’s Health Coalition said yesterday at an event in the US House of Representatives: ‘what is a normal biological process, and even a joyous occasion, actually puts girls at risk, reduces their control of their bodies and their life choices’.

Of course, the fact that the UN in its infinite wisdom decided to call the 11th of October the International Day of the Girl Child (!) is precisely why this day is needed. the inaccuracy of the term ‘girl child’ when these girls are in fact no longer treated as children, is beyond ironic.

However, the intention to direct more attention, and hopefully funding and policy measures, at adolescent girls – is critical. and yet, it’s important to note that the narrative around girls who are subject to violations that occur at the onset of puberty such as child, early and forced marriage, FGM/C and others is tied to human rights, and universality, and humanism, but not to the most important term – power.

girls face increased risks and a reduced sense of agency when they hit puberty due to socio-cultural pressures, dictates, binaries, norms, stereotypes and structures. All over the world, societies function by reducing the power that women have over their bodies and their choices, submitting them to their male family members and eventually their husbands. If we don’t clearly link the struggle Malala Yousafzai led to be able to go to school, and earn an education, which in other words means knowledge and power, with the struggle of the feminist movement which has for decades demanded an equal share of the pie, then we are all going to lose out.

The development engine has worked hard to frame ‘gender equality’ in human rights terms, fearful of alienating communities that claim various forms of discrimination and abuse against females are part of their ‘culture’, but in so doing has taken much of the political sting out of the process of achieving gender equality.  In discussing the rights of girls to a life of equal opportunities, I believe we must also speak about this as a power struggle, we must couch this in terms of a movement for the liberation of women and girls from the shackles of oppression.  The objectifying representation of women in the media, our limited reproductive freedom, the pay gap – you name it – it all traces back to unequal power relations that have over the years been cemented into social, cultural and religious institutions that work 24/7 to keep women and girls in their inferior place.

Until the version of the story that is being propagated by Malala, and other human rights activists who refuse to acknowledge the feminist nature of their struggle, takes on a feminist political edge – we will never see girls freely attending school in Pakistan. because it’s not about changing a policy, or increasing investment in teacher training, it’s about shifting deeply rooted notions about the value of females.

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development, gender, girls rights, human rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Women aren’t human

According to Wikipedia, human rights are amongst other things ‘the common moral language of public discourse’. Yet, the idea that there’s a universally agreed code of morality is still hugely contested. anyone working in this field has inevitably been confronted with a situation where ‘local cultural norms’ conflict with a human right tenet. I recently gave a webinar on adolescent girls and ICT4D to students at Tulane University in New Orleans. One of the first questions was about reconciling cultural practices with human rights and I suppose they expected to hear something that run along the lines of ‘human rights cannot be negotiated & anyone who disagrees can take a hike’. If you’ve ever wandered the halls of the Human Rights Council in Geneva you might come across firm believers in this approach, which relies heavily on legislative frameworks. By that I mean that any country that has ratified a human rights convention must abide by the commitments included in that framework and also translate them into national laws and policies. and it’s true that legislation does play an important role in protecting women from harm.

If we take an historical view of the feminist movement in the US, it becomes clear that many of the domestic legislative reforms they advanced were absolutely crucial in supporting gender equality. Last week I watched the ‘Makers: Women Who Make America‘ a TV series on PBS which is narrated by the fabulous Geena Davis. It tells the story of the successes and failures of the women’s movement in the US and really explains how legislative landmarks like ‘Title 9’ and ‘Roe vs. Wade’ changed American women’s lives. One of the most shocking moments on the show is a photo that was published in Ms. magazine in which a woman (named Gerri Santoro) lies dead on the floor after trying to self-abort her unwanted child. This was the horrifying reality for many women who were left with little choice regarding their own reproductive health. Legalizing abortions through a Supreme Court decision was an undeniable game changer which to date has probably saved millions of women’s lives.

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

Now let’s add a gender perspective to human rights and complicate this even further. Prominent feminists have argued that human rights are based on the masculine experience as the generic human norm. For instance, take the preamble of the UDHR: ‘Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled…to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’. It’s not just the use of the term ‘man’ to denote all human forms, it’s also the masculine understanding of ‘protection’ that is solely the responsibility of ‘the law’ and therefore falls in the domain of ‘the state’.

This means that it is violations against men, such as torture and wrongful imprisonment, rather than violations against women, which are more often experienced in the private sphere, that remain the standard to which all rights are held. This also means that the protection of people from individuals and non-state actors is limited, since human rights are basically set up to protect folks from the government. Which means that ‘when abuse is sexual or intimate, especially when it’s sexual and inflicted by an intimate, it is gendered, hence not considered a human rights violation’ says Catherine Mackinnon. This androcentric premise of human rights inevitably casts the female body in the category of ‘other’ and implicitly define women as not human. This ensures that violations against women most often perpetrated by individuals, intimate partners and family members, in the private sphere (at home) cannot be effectively addressed through human rights frameworks. Even CEDAW does not collapse this classic dichotomy, and some would even argue, portrays women as victims and exceptions to the norm, which further eradicates their agency.

From a development perspective, all this means human rights don’t have the political sting needed to really advance gender justice. So our work becomes piecemeal. we spend a lot of time focusing on the means and there is a danger that we will forget the role of women and girl’s agency in translating our good intentions into real outcomes.

Keeping in mind that equality between the sexes is a political process helps put the role of human rights frameworks in perspective. It’s about power – who has it, who doesn’t – and the redistribution of power, which will make a lot of people unhappy. This means that where tradition, culture, norms and practices suddenly meet resistance by women, for women, on behalf of women, in the protection of women, there will be push back from those who have power and are really averse to giving any of it up. Where it looks like it’s human rights vs. culture, i suggest looking a little bit closer. More often than not, it will be patriarchal institutions and their representatives, resisting the more equal divide of resources, assets and choices.

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