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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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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gender, girls rights, Women's rights

Herstory

My guest blog on UN Women NY, for women’s history month! Here is the link to Herstory and below is the full original text:

Herstory

A couple days ago I bought a magazine on women’s running as I was boarding a long haul flight and I enjoy reading about women who take charge of their life and their body. This edition had a distinctly feminist article on women runners who bravely fought oppressive forces that told them women can’t, shouldn’t and aren’t physically built to run any distance, certainly not a marathon, and did it anyway. It told the story of a series of amazing women, beginning in Greece in the 19th century, who decided for themselves that they are strong enough to run and went at it despite serious backlash.

One woman wasn’t allowed into the Athens marathon so she ran beside it the entire way and finished in just over 4 hours. The article told the famous story of K.W. Switzer who signed up to the Boston Marathon in 1967 when women were not allowed to enter. The officials later discovered that K stood for Katherine and tried to physically remove her from the race.

She was protected by her boyfriend and a number of male runners who eventually ran beside her the entire distance to ensure the Boston Marathon officials couldn’t catch her again. Finally, in 1972 women were allowed to compete and Switzer went on to win 1st place in the 1974 NY marathon.

The article told the story of Paula Radcliffe who resumed her training schedule 12 days after giving birth to her daughter and won the NY marathon 10 months later.  The list of female athletes who broke through barriers and stood fast against stereotypes, stigma and patriarchy goes on.

These stories are important ones and should be told and retold, lest we forget that what women have today, the right to vote, the right to run, the right to receive an education, have been hard won. It’s even more important in light of the fact that in many places in the world, women are still struggling to gain even the most basic rights, such as in Saudi Arabia where they aren’t allowed to drive. And that in some places women are still viewed as commodities, to be bought and sold at the whim of their male family members, such as in Afghanistan which boasts one of the highest levels of child marriage in the world.  And it’s important because in some places girls and young women are still struggling to protect their own bodies from an excision blade. And it’s important because of girls like Malala Yousefzai from Pakistan who stood up for her right to receive an education and was consequently brutally shot in the head. She is the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

For these reasons and more, we choose to celebrate women’s history month. However, this should not be viewed as a walk down memory lane, but as a living breathing testament to the struggle we are still facing to gain our rightful place beside those who have power over our bodies and over our choices. This struggle for equality, respect and protection goes on all the time, everywhere in the world, and we would do well to learn from the stories of brave women and girls who wouldn’t’ take no for an answer.

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