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.

Standard
gender, post 2015, United Nations

Sustainable Development Goals

The work around the next MDGs or ‘Post 2015’ as it is most commonly known, has been going on for a number of years now. considering the amount of flack the old Development Goals got back in the day, it might seem surprising that the draft version of the new SDGs (are we calling them that?) look so much like the MDGs.

Image

Although, the MDGs did a good job of rallying governments, and it’s hard to deny that significant progress has been made on targets such as education and reducing the levels of extreme poverty. Some argue that this is a result of a general increase in economic prosperity over the past 20-30 years. maybe. but it seems like the MDGs did the impossible, which was, to be aspirational and concrete at the same time. that’s a tricky balance, and for the most part they got it right. so what now?

taking a look at the Zero draft it seems like the UN is learning from mistakes, and taking steps to ensure the SDGs are more comprehensive and nuanced. This is, I should hope, the influence of CSO’s and coalitions which has taken part in wide ranging consultations. the process isn’t over yet, there’s still time for the UN governing bodies to backtrack and buckle under pressure from member states, making the next 18 months of advocacy work critical.

thank god Civicus published an Advocacy and the Post 2015 for Dummies toolkit.

advocacy toolkit

Seriously though, if you’re a Civil Society Organization involved in UN level work and you need this toolkit to explain ‘What is Advocacy?’, you’re in the wrong business. I’m not sure who this is supposed to help, but it does provide a useful breakdown of the UN decision making process around the SDGs.

and it’s enough to make you want to cut yourself. I mean, seriously. It’s the most complicated process ever developed in the history of complicated processes. trust the UN to come up with something so ridiculously unwieldy, it requires it’s own manual, and even that makes little sense unless you’re already involved in the meetings. It’s like road signs in Israel, they are there to confirm what you already know rather than point you in the right direction. If you trust the signs, you’ll never get to where you need to go.

So I guess the next 18 months or so are for CSO’s to ensure the more controversial sections of the draft, that didn’t make into the first set of gaols, actually make it through this time. And maybe harden some of the language too?

SDG 5.10

I mean, ‘promote the availability of gender disaggragated data’ is: A. ridiculous, data should be disaggregated by sex, how the fuck do you analyze data according to social norms? and B. a sorry excuse for a target. Data must be disagregated by sex and age. anything else is a waste of time and money. there – that’s what the target should say.

I’m also interested in seeing what kind of indicators will be included in the target on  reducing gender based violence – which I suspect will be very tricky. and fingers crossed the mention of the ICPD platform won’t be dropped – it’s the most critical gap that currently exists in development efforts. women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are under constant attack from a variety of conservative forces and it will show the UN’s true leadership if they manage to get everyone signed off on this.

Here’s hoping the SDGs really do usher in a new development era…as the Girl Effect once said: It’s no big deal, just the future of humanity.

 

 

 

Standard
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.

Standard
gender, girls rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Leaning on an open door

This is what we (in the policy and advocacy biz) used to say when we were lobbying the government to do something they had already said they intended to do. And this is how I felt yesterday during a #shebuilds digital rally on gender and international development. I took part in two tweetchats that focused on girls’ empowerment. In both cases, most if not all of the tweeters were organizations and members of organizations that are already dedicated to working on girl issues.

Image

I couldn’t help but wonder: were we preaching to the choir?

Of course, I couldn’t keep this observation to myself so I tweeted it at the organizers who were hosting one of the tweetchats. The @girleffect replied quickly and asked for my suggestions about fixing this. However, I only had 140 characters at my disposal, so the answer was somewhat brief.

Image

However, I would like to take this opportunity to delve a little deeper into this issue.

Voice vs. power

There is something slightly misleading about taking part in digital ‘activism’. In this I’m going to refer to tweets, and likes, and comments on discussions boards, and well, anything that doesn’t require moving out of your comfort zone. I’m not talking about activities like hacktivism, which can be quite the game changers (re Steubenville). Most of the actions individual users are likely to take online involve supporting a cause they already believe in and sharing this cause with others. Now, for most organizations this is an important way of gaining popular support which should ideally lead to pressure on decision makers to change whatever cause folks are supporting. In real life, this is rarely the case. Certainly the ‘occupy’ movement failed spectacularly to achieve any of the changes they were advocating for so vocally. On the other hand, it seems that the Post 2015 consultations are being quite open in their wish to engage the public and organizations from the ‘global south’ in the consultations. However, a close look at the emerging recommendations that were submitted last year by the ‘high level panel’ to the Secretary General reveal that what made the cut were the issues that had the backing of the right people, not the most people.

For instance, one of the illustrative goals that made it onto the list is about ending child marriage (more about the issue here). Despite the fact that child marriage is simply a symptom of a much larger illness, i.e. institutionalized gender based discrimination and unequal power relations, that are both exacerbated by poverty, ignorance, and the chaos of crisis and war. You might point out that it’s an easy ask – and you’d be right. it’s SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. But is it the most urgent violation of women and girls’ rights? Is it tackling the underlying cause in a systematic way? or did it make it into the short list because the right people are backing it?

rockpaper

Let’s be honest – we all know decisions are eventually made by a handful of people walking down a drab corridor on the way to the cafeteria.

My point: there’s a gap between how we, the public, perceive the importance of our voice in supporting or opposing an issue through online activism, and the real process that goes into making decisions. We think we have power when we come together, but unless we’re actually represented in the places where decisions are made, there’s no chance of changing anything. To those in the higher echelons, it all seems like a lot of white noise.

Who’s listening?

So you might say – that’s terribly cynical, I think some voices are heard even if they are powerless. ok. so we get together and organize a tweetchat to talk about girl-issues, responses, and programmatic innovations, and who shows up? 1. the people who are already working in this area, have knowledge, practice and understanding that they can contribute. 2. organizations that are using this as a platform for making noise about themselves, their ideas, work, campaigns, slogans etc. If you’re Joe Blow, has any of this reached you or engaged you? highly unlikely. you’re not listening, because this is way outside your comfort zone.

What are we actually saying?

One of my issues with the discussion was that it seemed very stale. We’ve been using the same stats and arguments since the dawn of (wo)man.

snooze

In case you were wondering – that statistic has been around since 1994, which means it’s based on data from the 80’s. yeah. It’s as old as I am. surely with the amount of money being poured into the issue of girls in development, we could have found a little bit to spend on some honest research?

also, I’m wondering why we haven’t come up with a better argument than ‘throw money at the problem, and girls will reinvest it into a flawed economic system’? we all know that the level of messaging that has been adopted by ALL the organizations working on girl-issues, has toed an instrumentalist line that sees girls’ empowerment as a route towards economic growth. We have yet to come up with a formula that treats girls rights as a universal truth and a question of social justice, completely divorced of economic, political, or any other gains that might be derived from advancing gender equality.

Then why are you still here?

stickgood question. i’m mostly here because I see it as my duty as a freelance consultant unaffiliated with any one organization to poke a stick at those I love. this blog post is my way of supporting the work and campaigning and awareness raising efforts of many organizations and individuals that i follow faithfully on twitter, who have really good intentions, and who come up with great ideas for digital events (thunderclaps and rallies!).

I expect more – so I’m asking everyone to raise the bar. I know it’s possible. we just have to try a little harder!

Keshet Bachan

Standard
gender, girls rights, post 2015, United Nations

Dilemmas

So this blog has been dormant for a while. That’s the problem with blogging. You have a lot you want to say, especially when you’re involved in an interesting project, but the more involved you are in a project the less time you have to blog. the classic dilemma.

My latest project revolves around the post 2015 agenda. so the powers that be at the UN are organising consultations with everyone under the sun, and there’s even an open discussion happening here. Reading through some of the comments made me raise my eyebrows a few time, and by the end of it I was wondering who’s the poor schmuck who has to sift through some of these rantings and present the post 2015 folks with coherent input. There is also a parallel process happening that involves the submission of position pieces from various NGO’s and academics. some of these are quite interesting, in particular i recommend reading the following:

The Gender and Development Network report (by Emily Esplen and Jessica Woodroffe) –   http://post2015.org/2012/07/20/gender-equality-and-the-post-2015-framework/

Jan Vandemoortele – http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/jan_vandemoortele_Aug.pdf

UN Task Team Report – http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/UNTTreport_10July.pdf

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr  – http://post2015.org/2012/08/08/should-global-goal-setting-continue-and-how-in-the-post-2015-era/

Nicholas Burnett and Colin Felsman (on education post 2015) – http://post2015.org/2012/08/16/post-2015-education-mdgs/

It seems the main issues being considered is how to keep the stuff the MDGs did well and how fix the MDG failures. except no one agrees on what was good and what wasn’t. another dilemma.

Even the high level buy-in and unprecedented donor support for the MDGs which seems to have been their biggest success, is considered by some to be a failure to engage national governments which has left the MDGs with little or very poor local level adaptation.

With regards to gender equality and the MDGs – I guess its too soon to say, but I get the impression (and i hope I’m not jinxing this) that the women’s movement is better coordinated these days and the majority is calling for both a dedicated goal as well as a process of gender mainstreaming.

The debates continue apace, so watch this space.

K

Standard