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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gender, gender based violence, girls rights, human rights, violence, violence against women, Women's rights

Killing in the name

A woman called Busaina Abu-Ganem was shot to death in Israel this week in an alleged “honor killing” case.  She’s the tenth woman in the horrible Abu-Ganem family to be murdered since the year 2000. The reason for this heinous act is yet unclear. what we do know is that she and her husband recently separated, leaving her with their six children. In an act of courage, Busaina decided to go back to school and get her diploma. a week after she completed her studies, she was murdered.

other women who have been brutally murdered by Abu-Ganem male family members include:

Rim Abu-Ganem who was murdered by her brothers for refusing to marry a man they were forcing her to wed. after they killed her they drowned her body.

Sherihan Abu-Ganem was 16 when her brother murdered her because of ‘jealousy’

Hamda Abu-Ganem was killed by her brothers who were indicted for the murder based on a female cousin’s testimony. this female cousin ‘disappeared’ after the trial, and it’s believed her body is buried in the West Bank, in an area outside the jurisdiction of Israeli authorities.

These women are victims twice over. first they were victims of a family that sees females as chattel with little value beyond that of a reproductive agent. secondly, they were victims of a discriminatory society that ‘others’  Muslim minorities and ultimately discourages the Jewish authorities from seeking justice.

gender based violence is pervasive. it’s important to remember that women are abused to the point of death everyday across the globe; that this isn’t tied to one religion, race of region. but regardless of location, violence against women and girls stems from very similar origins – unequal power relations. simply put – men use violence or the threat of violence to maintain their sense of power / control over women. this is not to say that all men are violent or oppose the equality of women. not at all. however, some men pick up on social and cultural cues that tell them women are not as valuable or as important as men, they can and should be hurt in order to maintain male authority, and that their existence is merely a reflection of a man’s achievement.

these are the kinds of messages that must be tackled through behavior change communications, awareness raising campaigns, legislative and policy reforms, community outreach and a strong coordinated and functional social protection system. in the absence of honest determination, leadership and political support, the root causes of ‘honor killings’ will never be fully addressed. and because this is seen so much as a ‘woman’s issue’ to be discussed about and exclaimed over by feminist organizations, but never to be acknowledged as a hard-line concern such as terrorism, security and border control, it will probably never rally enough interest and support to truly be eradicated. any progress we make, will always be incremental, and hard to measure. but the chance of stopping another senseless murder before it is carried out must motivate us to continue the good fight.

For more resources on gender based violence go to: http://www.endvawnow.org/

Support the International Violence Against Women Act (USA): http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/international-violence-against-women-act

Take action on Global Orange Day: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/orangeday.shtml

Support the White Ribbon Campaign in your country: http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/international

Check out some of the leading global initiatives to end violence against women: http://www.endvawnow.org/en/leading-initiatives

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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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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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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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gender, gender gaps, girls rights, ICT4D, stereotyping, women in the labor force, Women's rights

Girls in ICT Day 2014!

To celebrate this year’s girls in ICT day, I’d like to focus on the intersection of adolescent girls (aged 10-19) and ICT4D. I recently gave a short presentation at Tulane University and you can find the presentation here.

There was quite a bit of interest in the ways in which mobile phone apps can inadvertently harm, rather than empower, girls and young women. I guess we have this notion that ‘access to tech = empowerment’. if only it were so simple! not to say that information communication technologies haven’t facilitated positive changes and will continue to do so. It’s just that treating them like some miracle cure is bound to end up in disappointment.

A while back I wrote about the ways in which mobile apps meant to protect women from violence can actually put them in harm’s way. essentially, understanding violence as ‘stranger danger’ is totally misleading, since most violence is committed by intimate partners and family members. The idea of a panic button that sends a signal to a family member if you’re harassed or attacked in the street sounds good. but it could all too easily be turned into a tool that allows for surveillance of young women, curtailing their freedom and mobility out of a misguided sense of ‘protection’. Certainly as a woman im much more interested in an app that will change attitudes, and allow me to dress and act in any way i see fit without garnering catcalls or even opening myself up to assault.

gender and girls rights

Another interesting topic that came up was control over ICTs. I made the point that so much of the technology we used is designed and engineered by men. the lack of female representation in the tech industries, and the poor number of young women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at secondary school and university levels, means women play a role as consumers of technology and little else. why is this the case? A slightly dated (but still wonderful) report from Cisco found the European girls (who, I’m sure we can all agree, are surrounded by technology all the time) tended to drop out of ICT studies around age 15.

The reasons:

  • lack of support  from role models
  • persistent stereotyped views that the sector is better suited to men
  • a lack of understanding about what ICT jobs entail
  • how easy or difficult they find the subject
  • girls don’t see ICT roles offering them chances to travel, to help others or to work independently.

the report concludes that from a business perspective this is a loss of talent. from a feminist perspective this is proof that socialization processes and entrenched forms of discrimination are keeping girls from ‘choosing’ to follow a techie career. and maybe if more women were involved in this field we would have better safety apps?

yes we can

This issue is a core part of what ‘girls in ICT’ day is about – encouraging girls to choose careers in tech. In the words of the 2014 flyer:

“The ICT sector remains a growing sector for employment and a key economic factor underpinning both national and international development in both developed and  developing countries. Many countries and regions are predicting a shortage of qualified staff with math, science, engineering and computing skills to meet the growing demand. At the same time, many companies are looking to increase the number of women in the sector. This means that highly qualified women in technical fields have significant opportunities available to them in both developed and developing countries. The need for qualified professionals in developing countries worldwide should come as no surprise, considering the rate of ICT growth in developing countries.Why don’t we try to reach even more girls and young women on International Girls in ICT Day 2014?”

there are numerous initiatives that are working to change the stereotypes around IT careers and encourage girls to pursue STEM studies. I’m optimistic about prospects, and believe more women are already making their mark. Certainly if Sheryl Sandberg’s latest book ‘Lean In’ and the foundation she opened to encourage girls to realize their potential are any indication, women are busily carving out a space at the top.

 

Keshet Bachan

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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