gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D, SDGs

First, do no harm

As a gender and development practitioner who works specifically with girls and young women who are under 18 years of age, I get asked a lot about what i take into consideration when developing or advising others on the development of a program to empower girls in living poverty. My response? there are many things to take into account, but first and foremost, consider whether your intervention might put them at risk. if the answer is yes, and ofttimes it will be especially if the program is gender transformative, i.e. challenging existing power structures, then one must honestly consider whether the risk level is acceptable and what if anything can be put in place to mitigate this risk.

When we’re working on challenging gender norms and changing social behaviors, we are actively disrupting the status quo. and this can make some people resistant, uncomfortable, fearful or even violent. especially those who are in positions of power, and who might feel like this power is being directly or indirectly challenged. for instance,  a woman finding gainful employment or joining a savings groups which gives her control over her income might experience backlash from her spouse, children or the wider community.

Working with those who are under 18 requires that we consider their evolving capacity to handle such risks and the consequences to their lives. different age groups are at different cognitive and behavioral development stages and that’s a hugely important factor to consider. for instance, sex education curricula will not be the same for early adolescents (10/11-14) and late adolescents (14-18) who are most likely already sexually active.

Children and young people are also still considered legal wards of their families and care-takers, and so any intervention that involves them necessarily involves more than just one individual. this is an important point that often differentiates working with children and youth from working with adults. Any program that involves children and youth, also requires informed consent, which depending on the program can be a huge sticking point.

After establishing the unique parameters of working with under 18’s, we come to the issue of risk. how to define what’s too great a risk, and what can conceivably be seen in the context of our work to transform relations between the sexes, as the  acceptable cost of doing business?

To paraphrase from my favorite show – when it comes to risk in programming with girls, when is a risk too risky?

The first part of this answer is philosophical and ethical. From a child protection perspective you could say that ensuring every part of a program is ‘in the best interest of the child’ is paramount. From a social change perspective you could say that empowering children to speak out and affect change trumps an (ofttimes) paternalistic child protection approach which would deny the child a chance to exercise their agency. both of these need to be taken into consideration in terms of the goals of a program. for instance, if the goal is to change social norms by organizing a group of girl advocates who will speak out against early pregnancy in their communities, then one must weigh the risk of community backlash with the real possibility that this kind of work could save lives.

There’s no easy answer, and ‘doing no harm’ is above all our main objective, though we must weigh the likelihood and severity of risks in light of the potential transformative change our project could achieve. I would also add, again, that any intervention which seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms carries inherent risks. For me that is a given, however, there are clear ways in which these risks can be substantially reduced through effective programming, even if not eliminated altogether.

The second part of this answer is technical. Any self respecting organization will conduct risk analyses for programs, initiatives, events or engagements involving young people. this is the best space to evaluate the risk levels and agree on mitigation steps. an example of a risk assessment (for an event) will look something like this:

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Even visually, color coding a risk assessment can offer a good ‘at glance’ measure for deciding whether the risk levels are too high – if half the document is red, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Finally, I would also suggest that a good way of evaluating risk to young people or children can be done by including them in program design. working with children and young people is the best way to gain insights into their lived realities and ensure any intervention is tailored to address their experiences as they perceive them. this is especially relevant when working with adolescent girls, since they will experience different social pressures depending on cultural context and are best placed to gauge the reactions of their families, communities and peers to any actions they will take to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Keshet Bachan

 

 

 

 

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Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

How social media changed the women’s movement

Read my speech from last week’s panel discussion at the Commission on the Status of Women:

Dear colleagues, and feminist sisters and brothers – good morning!

We are here today to undertake an important task – bridging the gap between online and offline activism.

The Commission on the Status of Women has always been a place where these two tracks meet to galvanize action and translate policy into practice. It’s the two weeks of the year when the twittersphere is as full of gender discussions as the UN is full of feminists.

As someone who has been an activist for over 10 years, essentially ‘coming of age’ during the reign of the MDG framework, and in the shadow of the Beijing platform – which has taken on an almost mystic legendary quality for many of my generation – I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which I believe social media has changed the face of the women’s movement.

When I first attended the CSW in 2009, my biggest concern was finding an electric socket. The conference rooms, including the General Assembly hall, were relics from a bygone era, and the most exciting event took place when I was forced to unplug a lamp in the hallway to charge my laptop – instantly plunging the entire area into complete darkness.

For me this experience really sums up the distance we have come in the way the UN views the importance of using technology to increase transparency, accountability and participation.

The MDG’s were decided in a small room filled UN technocrats. The Sustainable Development Goals on the other hand are the product of probably the widest consultation the United Nations has ever led. This could not have happened without social media platforms and forums for online discussion.

The Beijing platform Section J calls for the use of new forms of media to bridge gaps and ensure women’s voices are included in decisions that affect their lives.

We all know the challenges we face in making this a reality: the digital divide which prevents women and girls from accessing, using, controlling and designing tech tools; discrimination in all its forms which means women’s engagement with technology is often fraught with violence and abuse; girls shying away from studying computers or science, leaving this sector to be driven by a male-centred user experience.

But we must also consider the ways in which social media has allowed young feminists and gender equality activists to make their voices heard, where once only the ‘specialist’ was allowed to speak.

I am part of a millennial generation that uses blogs to share our innermost thoughts; that relies on Facebook for breaking news; a generation that can say a lot in 120 characters; who views distances and borders as an insignificant detail.

The exchange of views, the proliferation of opinions, and what I believe to be the consciousness raising process that takes place any time there is a feminist debate online – is invaluable to the women’s movement.

Forums like the OECD’s Wikigender have opened up a new space where vital gender and development issues can be widely discussed, and more importantly, where these discussions can impact influencers including donors, the media and multilateral institutions.

In bridging online and offline activism, I have had the privilege of working directly with girls from all over the world.  As an expert with Plan International, my work involves training girls to be advocates and use social media tools to engage with decision makers both locally and globally.

Our focus on including girls in the post 2015 agenda has translated into real accomplishments in terms of policy outcomes, and it has, I believe, also fostered a new generation of girl-advocates and empowered citizens.

The goals on eliminating child marriage and FGM, on increasing educational achievements for girls with a focus on quality and safety, have all been hard fought for by many, including girls.

We have used social media as a tool for extending the reach of girl-led campaigns through youtube where they uploaded videos and vlogs; through Facebook, where girls shared inforgraphics, stories and links; through twitter, where their voices were heard by those in charge; through SMS messaging campaigns, online forums and digital news magazines.

Through offline advocacy, ensuring girls meet and talk directly with their own governments at capitol and mission level. And most importantly, capturing these meetings through video, photos and blogs, and using them to hold decision makers to account for the promises they make to girls behind closed doors.

In 2014, one girl advocate who stood up for her right to an education was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Malala Yousafzai remains an inspiration to every girl in the world who has been denied her rights, for her bravery in overcoming extreme violence to make her voice heard.

I believe that social media is and will continue to be an instrument and a platform for women and girls who will not be silent in face of discrimination and exclusion. My experience, and those of my fellow panellists, shows there is still a gap between online and offline activism, but it is narrowing rapidly.

It is now up to us to keep the decision making doors wide open so women and girls from all across the globe can use social media platforms to enter into these spaces, influence the powers that be, and in so doing become the next generation of feminists and activists.

Thank you.

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watch this speech online here: http://www.wikigender.org/index.php/Side_event:_Making_women%27s_voices_heard_from_Beijing_to_Post-2015_in_social_media

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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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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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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Gender equality as smart economics?

I was recently sent a fantastic article by Sylvia Chant (former Prof. of mine from the LSE) and Caroline Sweetman titled ‘fixing women or fixing the world? ‘smart economics’, efficiency approaches and gender equality in development’. This article can be found in the gender and development journal here. It really struck a cord, for reasons that will become obvious, and although this for me is not a new discussion, it’s worth highlighting for those who might think all ‘girl advocates’ speak with one enthusiastic voice in support of investing in girls.

Chant and Sweetman take on the ‘girl agenda’ and ask whether the new interest in investing in girls as a route towards poverty reduction is simply ‘Women in Development’ (WID) in a different guise. For those unfamiliar with the history of gender/development, here is a brief explanation:

WOMEN IN DEVELOPMENT (WID):

Dates to the early 1970’s. Height of WID was during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). Was concerned with women’s ‘predicament’ in developing regions. Fuelled by growing academic research on the ‘gender blindness’ in development. Focuses on women as a group in their own right. Women were seen as an ‘untapped’ force in economic growth. Emphasis was on integrating women into development. This provoked the creation of national machineries, bureaus, units, programs and departments within States.
PROs: 1st time resources apportioned to women’s development; more women than ever ‘infiltrating’ international development system; potential for creating awareness of gender inequality in development planning.
CONs: concentrated exclusively on women; essentialized women as a single group; sex was highlighted above all other identity categories; women’s concerns only ‘added in’ to mainstream development projects; not about changing gender relations and ideology; led to tokensim, marginalisation and ghettoisation of women’s efforts and concerns; rising resistance from women in the global South who saw WID as an imposition of neo-colonial development strategies that prioritised external interests.

GENDER AND DEVELOPMENT (GAD):

Evolved out of WID, beginning around the 1995 Beijing Conference. Basic theoretical premise is that gender identity is a dynamic and social construct shaped by time, place, age, class, ‘race,’ etc. Understands a unilateral focus on women as inappropriate and non-transformative. The focus is now on gender relations rather than women. Short term-goals are similar to WID: improved education, access to credit, legal rights. But long-term goals are very different: structural shifts in male-female power relations; empowering women through collective action; challenging gender ideologies and institutions that subordinate women.

So what happened after GAD became popular, i.e. from 1995 onward? According to Chant and Sweetman the World Bank comes out with a new report that lauds women’s ability to withstand economic crises and other emergencies (see here). In other words, the policy powers that be realize that women can act as cushions for the fallout of neoliberal restructuring. This adds to the emerging evidence of the social goods that can be gained in terms of reduced fertility and children’s health outcomes as a result of investing in women directly. The WB follows this publication up with a later Gender Action Plan and Global Monitoring Report that depict ‘gender equality itself as smart economics, in that it enables women to contribute their utmost skills and energies to the project of world economic development’. Chant and Sweetman site the Girl Effect campaign as taking these messages to a whole new level by ‘proposing that once these investments are made girls will ‘do the rest’, ‘change the course of history’ and safeguard the ‘future of humanity’.

Now look back at the WID summary.
concentrated exclusively on women (read girls) = check
essentialized women (girls) as a single group = check
sex was highlighted above all other identity categories = check
not about changing gender relations and ideology = check

Basically Chant and Sweetman argue that women and girls are working for development, again (check out an older version of this argument from the fantastic Rosalind Eyben). or in their words: ‘Smart economics seeks to use women and girls to fix the world’. I think they make another important point in this context, which relates to the last part about WID being unconcerned with changing gender relations, that there is a risk that this instrumentalist messaging will overestimate ‘what women are capable of in a global order characterized by ongoing gender bias and structural barriers to their capabilities’. Which means detaching the messaging of investing in girls from the feminist project of transforming the laws, policies and practices which have so far kept women and girls oppressed will not lead to women and girls’ empowerment.

Now that we have thoroughly taken the ‘invest in girls’ agenda out back and set it on fire, let us take a moment to put all this in perspective. Firstly, for those who decide to read the article in full, you’ll note the authors mention the ‘because i am a girl’ report series which i coordinated for a good number of years as an example of how INGO’s have taken up this call for gender equality as smart economics. And to some extent public campaign messaging has been toeing this popular line. However, research, analysis and certainly programming has stuck to GAD quite faithfully, in part due to Plan’s commitment to rights based programming which inherently means tackling gender inequality holistically to remove barriers to the realization of rights.

But this isn’t a manifesto in the defense of any one organization. In fact, the disturbingly instrumentalist, or efficiency-led, approach to girls’ empowerment has been at the forefront of my blogging endevours for a while. see here for a three year old blog post lamenting the language used at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative meetings. They quite clearly leveled the discussion at the private sector and World Bank type donors stating their sessions focused on ‘adolescent girls, the most underutilized resources in the world today’. At the time, i felt this was letting duty bearers off the hook. almost three years later, im worried it will lead to an epic fail. and if so, will the backlash and disappointment move the policy discussion away from girls altogether? when they are unable to deliver on the expectation that they ‘move their community and country’ out of poverty, will the trickle of funding dry up altogether?

Some will argue that we should engage in ‘strategic essentialism‘, which is an important concept that means strategically using a heterogenous category like ‘girls’ in a homogenous way for a political end. If donors are pouring millions into education systems to ensure girls receive basic schooling, does it really matter that they are motivated by a reductionist approach to ‘girls’, an instrumentalist argument and 20 year old data?

I can’t answer that. but I would quote Chant and Sweetman again when they say: ‘structural discrimination constrains the agency of women and girls and presents them with insurmountable obstacles, despite their best efforts to advance their own interests and meet their own needs…what is needed is a gender and development approach which recognizes inequality as a relational issue, and which recognizes the equal rights of all women and girls – regardless of age, or the extent or nature of their economic contribution’.

Keshet Bachan

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