Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The girl effect

Watch this video:

The Girl Effect brings attention to a major void in the current approach to international aid - girls. Less than two cents of every dollar spent on international aid goes to help girls, yet girls are often cited as the key to ending many of the world’s most pressing problems. By focusing on adolescent girls, The Girl Effect seeks to attack poverty at its source by starting with perhaps the least valued demographic in the world. The Girl Effect and other organizations have listened to the mounting research that points to young women as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty that leaves much of the world devastated, and their work is critical to large scale change.

I came across The Girl Effect while looking into which organizations I would like to donate this holiday season. This campaign struck me as innovative yet painfully obvious, humane and effective, and I’ve quickly become a huge advocate of their message. Their concept is not entirely novel, over the past ten years other organizations have also begun to turn their attention to girls as an untapped opportunity and crucial requirement to global health and economic stability. The “Because I am a Girl” campaign by Plan is very similar, their goal is, “to fight gender inequality, promote girls' rights and lift millions of girls out of poverty.” One organization, Girls Discovered, seeks to properly count girls, as they are often under accounted for (i.e. not given proper birth documentation, not counted properly by their communities) leaving large portions of girls invisible and underserved. There are a host of other organizations that contribute to girls in many different ways (health, education, sports, etc.) that are innovative and important, but The Girl Effect stuck with me because of its focus on harnessing the power of girls to change entire communities. Perhaps because The Girl Effect was founded by the Nike Foundation, it has the powerful “Just Do It” feeling, but its focus on pure empowerment is, I believe, the best message for young women everywhere.

Countless studies over the past decade have shown that gender inequality perpetuates the cycle of poverty, limiting the health and economic development of countries where gender inequality is severe. By leaving girls uneducated, relegated to unpaid housework, and condoning teen pregnancy and rape, entire nations either acquiesce or promote a system which renders girls powerless in their communities. Their powerlessness has palpable consequences as there are direct correlations to HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, death during childbirth, sex trafficking, and poverty.

The Girl Effect’s approach to combating these problems combines proper identification of girls from birth, literacy and education, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and financial opportunities. Without a proper birth certificate, a girl cannot prove her age to protect herself from child marriage or to secure a job. This leads to more children that they can’t afford, joblessness, or even health complications due to childbirth at a young age. Lack of literacy and education prevent girls from participating fully in the community or ever becoming a major presence in the formal economy. Further, leaving school early often leads to early marriage and pregnancy. The Girl Effect projects that Kenya would gain $27 billion in potential income per generation if its female dropouts had continued their education. Likewise, they posit that India sacrifices a potential of $100 billion over a lifetime due to adolescent pregnancy. Not only are there psychological consequences of disempowerment, but substantial economic ramifications for the community.

Finally, investing in business opportunities for girls through microloans presents some of the best opportunities to lifting entire communities out of poverty. The examples are numerous and the results dramatic: By providing loans as small as $2, girls start making their own income, they grow their businesses by hiring more women, and soon become key players in their communities’ economy. What’s more, studies reveal that women spend their money differently than men, so much so that these differences would dramatically impact the health of their communities. Women invest nearly 90% of their income into their families through health care, nutrition, and education, while men only invest 30-40% of their income in the same way. In impoverished areas, men tend to spend a disproportionate amount on tobacco, alcohol, and prostitution. International donors have caught on to this data and begun to direct more of their funds towards women as they will see more bang for their buck.

As I was always told growing up and playing sports, “A team is only as strong as its weakest link.” By bringing attention to this undervalued and often forgotten demographic, The Girl Effect invests in the “weakest link” to demonstrate that young girls hold more potential for world change than any other demographic; they are an unrealized economic force, and stand to accelerate growth in nearly every sector. In a 2008 report, Goldman Sachs concluded that, “gender inequality hurts economic growth.” Even the infamous Larry Summers wrote when he was chief economist at World Bank, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”

When girls have resources they invest them in their families. When communities invest in girls’ health, everyone’s health improves. When girls are valued and permitted to contribute to society, their contributions improve the conditions of all those around them. It's a pretty simple concept supported by years of research, that, if fostered, could lead to remarkable changes for the developing world. Shifting cultural views so that girls are valued from the time they are born and through their adolescence will lead to tremendous improvements in the developing world.

If you've already started thinking about holiday giving, I strongly encourage donating to an organization that invests directly in girls around the world.


Rose Sawyer said...

In browsing the Girl Effect web site, I came across a publication [1] called "What Men Have to Do With It: Public Policies to Promote Gender Equality." We spend so much time in Feminist Legal Theory talking about how to effect change that I thought it might be worth sharing the (I thought, awesome) strategies suggested by this publication. They are:

1. Education policies, including early childhood education.
2. Public security policies, encompassing the armed forces and the police and incarceration policies.
3. Human rights policies.
4. Health policies.
5. HIV/AIDs and sexual and reproductive health and rights policies.
6. Integrated gender-based violence policies.
7. Livelihoods and poverty alleviation policies.
8. Engaging men as fathers and caregivers, including in maternal and child health policies, including paternity leave policies.

I had two main thoughts about this.

First was that this list is fairly comprehensive -- it covers a lot of the different issues that we've discussed in this class (includes masculinities, violence against women, etc.).

Second was that so often American organizations come up with great "strategies" to help countries internationally, but are too proud to admit that they might also prove useful domestically. This pamphlet is targeted at countries including Mexico, India, and Brazil. But the "policies" that it advocates are the same ones that desperately need to be implemented here, in the States.

This brings me full-circle back to our first reading -- "The No Problem Problem." Acknowledging the United States' own room for improvement as regards female empowerment is an important and necessary first step toward effecting change.


Jihan A. Kahssay said...

Last week, PBS aired a two-part documentary entitled "Half the Sky", which was based on the popular book of the same title. As I watched the documentary, the Girl Effect campaign and the related research came to mind.

The Girl Effect campagne presents a very persuasive argument that does not receive enough attention. There is little doubt that investing in women, and girls in particular, will make the world a better place for everyone. Efforts to actually invest in girls, however, have lagged. This is incredibly sad and frustrating.

Girls, and especially girls in developing countries, are so immensely vulnerable. At the same time, girls are boundlessly valuable. Ignoring their value is a detriment to our wellbeing; exploiting their vulnerability is a shame on our humanity.