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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body image, gender, girls rights, Women's rights

Do ‘girl ads’ detract from girls’ empowerment?

This excellent blog post summarizing the discussion at the NY Technology Salon the past week really hits on a number of critical issues relating girls and/in the media.

I think that one of the issues not brought up directly, but alluded to in this discussion, is the co-opting of feminist ideas. The appeal of the feminist movement is predicated on the nagging sense all women have that something isn’t right, that boys and men are getting a better deal. on a very basic level, this is universal enough to appeal to a broad audience. Consumer product marketing mavericks took this notion, and they basically used it to make their product seem ‘feminist’. Of course, this is what we would call ‘lipstick feminism’ or  in other words, taking the feminist ideals of power with/to/within and removing the political sting, so all you’re left with are hallowed out terms that can easily be adopted by a campaign for a beauty product.

Not to get too deeply into the issues of cause marketing (which are vast), the very idea of linking the feminist notion of the commodification of female bodies which serves patriarchal systems to keep women subjugated, fractured and busy with what Naomi Wolf called ‘the third shift’, and adopting it to sell body lotion and deodorant, is nothing short of mind boggling. this paradox could only ever exist and succeed in a society that conflates political participation with purchasing products. and i think in the face of this consumer driven onslaught, feminism is going to lose.

Because selling a product is so much easier than explaining the heterosexual matrix. and because our attention spans are getting ever shorter, the odds of someone not enrolled in a women’s studies program ever taking the time to really understand these powerful concepts, is highly unlikely. and so you get things like this. because young women think feminism is unnecessary, but the same girls think the Dove campaign for ‘real beauty’ is powerful. and that Nicki Minaj is a role model.

Do ‘girl ads’ detract from girls’ empowerment?.

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Kangaroo mothers

Despite my jaded aid worker/ development / policy wonk nature, every once in a while i read something that makes me go ‘gosh’. I came across a case study in a UNICEF Ghana report (disclosure: I’m working with Julie Pudlowski on a policy booklet for them) which really got me thinking that if development focused more on stories like this, and less on poverty porn marketing, we would be better off. 

“Awintirim weighed only 1.3 kilograms at birth, arriving six weeks prematurely. This is not unheard of in this central part of Ghana where early marriage, harmful practices, malnutrition, anaemia, malaria, and other parasites and infections, have an adverse effect on pregnancy and delivery. Underweight babies had to share incubators who malfunctioned most of the time. Now, all they need are their mothers. Awintirim spent the first two months of his life tied to his mother’s chest in a cloth ‘pouch’, just like a baby kangaroo. Snuggled against their mother’s skin, the babies’ body temperatures stabilise, their heart rates steady and they begin to breathe more easily. His mother, Lydia says that ‘When he was alone, he would start to shake and cry. But he becomes still as soon as I tie him to me and hold him. The heat of my body makes him feel like he is still in the womb’. The program also encourages exclusive breastfeeding which reduces the chances of becoming sick from contaminated water or breast milk substitutes. just as mother nature intended. Sometimes simple is best, and it saves lives. Before June 2008, 9 out of the 16 underweight babies born at the hospital died.  After the program started in June, all 12 babies born underweight lived”.

Have a nice weekend everyone! 

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