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Archive for September, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Yesterday I read this great post by Siobhan Foran (UNICEF) lamenting two things:

  1. That when folks use the word gender, they mean girls.
  2. That they tick the gender box in their program proposals by using cryptic sentences like ‘with special attention to girls’.

I have to say it really gets my goat when people casually replace the word women or girls with gender. And not just because this effectively ignores the needs of boys and men. But because it strips the word gender of all its political power.

Some basics (and if this is ‘duh’ to you, skip it):

Sex is: the biological differences between males and females.

Gender is: the social and cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities. In other words gender represents assumptions about what men and boys should do and what women and girls should do in society. Moreover, gender is about the relationships between women and men, girls and boys and the way these relationships are socially constructed.

The word ‘Gender’ allows us to see power differences. If our lens of analysis is not comparing two groups, but only looking at women/girls as a distinct group, then we lose our ability to uncover unjust imbalances.

More importantly, gender allows us to take action. If attitudes and expectations are socially constructed, then surely they change from place to place, they change over time, and they can be changed if we try very hard.

The second point Siobhan Foran made regarding programmatic responses that have supposedly mainstreamed gender by claiming to put in place ‘special considerations for girls’ is indeed an annoying habit. I would hope donors would simply stop handing out funds to organizations that submit proposals using sentences of that ilk.

I would like to take a moment though and focus on what I perceive to be the root cause of these “badaid” proposals – gender blindness.

A bit of feminist theory (no, you can’t skip this bit):

Ruth Frankenburg is an American feminist well-known for theorizing ‘whiteness’. By making being ‘white’ visible one can see and thus undermine the power of whiteness as a “location of structural advantage” that sustains racism. Being aware of ones privilege (this can be a privilege of location ‘global north’/‘global south’, or a privilege of race or of gender etc.) is important because our ‘privilege’ informs our knowledge, our opinions, our attitudes and our actions. Frankenburg argues that we must understand the subject position of the oppressor if we are to understand that of the oppressed. 

So, by being gender blind and aiming an aid program at ‘children’ or ‘youth’ we are ignoring that not all the people in that category face the same challenges or have the same privileges (which we might want to capitalize on). We also ignore the group power dynamics which could seriously affect the success of our project.

Frakenburg also argues that whiteness has always been visible for most non-white people.  “Color-blindness” stems from racial privilege and is a primary tool of racial domination.

This is important. When people say ‘I don’t care if someone is yellow, purple, pink or grey. Color doesn’t matter to me’ they are speaking from a place of privilege. Because ‘whiteness’ is socially viewed as a non-color, they can allow themselves to claim that they do not see color. The same is true for any majority, or privileged group, claiming they do not ‘see’ less privileged groups. 

Now, we can all sense where this is going. If you do not see discrimination and oppression – how can you counter it?  And more to the point, by claiming we are all ‘the same’ you are in effect claiming we operate on a level playing field where inequalities do not exist. This is not useful. Especially in the realm of human rights which is predicated on the understanding that some groups need to be protected from those who don’t see them.

All this to say, that those who are creating programs that claim to address ‘gender inequalities’ by virtue of using that term once or twice in their proposal should take a long hard look in the mirror. What do you see?

Keshet Bachan


Behind the scenes: writer’s view

The trouble with writing an annual report is that by the time one is published, you are busy working on the next. So here I am, September 2010, working on ideas for the 2011 report in order to produce a respectable outline for the report’s Advisory Panel that is meeting in Washington next week. But I am also trying to think about what to say to the press about the 2010 report on Cities and technology – called Digital and Urban Frontiers: Girls in a Changing Landscape. The problem is that I finished writing it in April and have done a million things since then.

 It doesn’t take long though: the main issues are clear enough – listen to girls, invest in girls, ensure that in these new and challenging spaces they are able to take up the opportunities offered in the same way that their brothers can. And I can tell some of the girls’ own stories. As the writer of the report – I don’t work for Plan but have been involved as a freelancer since the first report in 2007 –  I have the privilege of being able to listen to some girls myself.  Remembering them reminds me of what I want to tell the journalists – of Habiba, a 12 year old girl in Egypt who was severely disabled at birth, but with the most charming smile I have ever seen. I nearly missed talking to Habiba, because my interviews with mothers and their daughters in this poor suburb of Cairo had run over time and we needed to be somewhere else. But as we were saying our goodbyes I realised that her mother had probably been asked to bring her in specially to see me. So I knelt down next to her and held her hand while her mother told me her story – which you can read on page 53 of the report. Habiba smiled throughout.

 Or the girls in a community centre in a suburb of Alexandria. I was expecting to meet a few girls and talk to them about their experience of living in the city and what they thought of the internet and mobile phones. When I got there, the room was packed with mothers and daughters who had all clearly been waiting for some time. They were all keen to know why I was there, who I was. Was I married? Did I have any children? How old was I? Then it was my turn. I started by asking whether they had moved to the city from the village, and if so why. There was a flurry of hands and everyone started talking at once. It was clear that the girls were not afraid to speak out. They told me of projects linking up via the internet and email with girls in other cities. They told me how they had taught their mothers how to use a computer – in some cases this also involved teaching them to read first. They were proud of what they had achieved, and outspoken and opinionated and feisty. They would have held their own in any forum.

But perhaps the most moving experience, as you will see from my piece on page 70 of the report, was the visit to the street girls centre in Alexandria. I arrived with Plan staff and talked to the director of the centre and the chief social worker. I could see the girls in the back room but they were not ready to talk to me yet. Even when we finally went in and I was introduced they were silent. But they did start chatting in the end, and they had many ideas for those in power about how things should be changed to improve their situation. They were quick and insightful and at times even funny. But the glimpse I got into their young lives was one of neglect and abuse and little love. And of the prejudice they face from almost everyone – just because they are girls. It is experiences like this that make me proud to be part of the Because I am a Girl team and clear that the challenge we face in the struggle for gender equality is far from over.

Nikki Van Der Gaag

Girls Empowerment and the CGI

This week leaders, movers, shakers and international change makers came together in New-York for the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). The conference aims to catalyze dialogue and galvanize action by encouraging members to share creative solutions to global problems and pledge large scale commitments to social causes.

If you have been following the sessions you will know that this year we had not one, but four panels dedicated to ‘girls empowerment’. In fact, the opening plenary session of the conference chaired by former president Bill Clinton was titled ‘Empowering Girls and Women’. We then had a chance to hear about ‘preparing girls for the world’, ‘Securing the health and safety of girls’ and ‘Girls from Education to Economic Empowerment’.

In the evening there was a dinner for the glitterati sponsored by Goldman Sachs titled ‘Investing in Women and Girls’. According to Nick Kristof, NY columnist and author of ‘Half the Sky’, it was ‘the hottest ticket in town’. 

So what did we hear in these sessions?

Well it is very telling that the words ‘gender equality’ weren’t used at all. What does that indicate to us? That the sessions weren’t focused on achieving an equal society for both men and women, girls and boys. The sessions were focused on (and we quote) ‘Adolescent girls, the most underutilized resources in the world today’. Although broadly speaking investment in girls’ potential and empowering them to access opportunities is a laudable aim, one which we the ‘girls report’ team are in favour of, we also feel that the Human Rights based arguments have been diluted and practically disappeared altogether from the scene.  Girls have the right to be invested in. Actually, so do boys. And this investment will lead to a fairer society which will benefit everyone because social equality fosters prosperity. And more importantly: investing in girls, gender equality for all, is not just a means to an end, it is an end in itself.  

Rosalind Eyben, convener of IDS’s Pathway of Empowerment Programme says it best with her post on Open Democracy ‘Making Women Work for Development – Again’.

Moreover, focusing exclusively on the ‘return on investing in a girl’ in essence adds another load to their already burdened lives. So girls are now asked not only to clean, fetch water and firewood, help cook and take care of the sick and elderly, they are now tasked with raising their entire communities out of poverty.

Although we are heartened by the increased attention and investment by the corporate sector in girls, we worry that by disconnecting the rights based arguments from these discussions we are letting duty bearers off the hook. Ultimately it is the states responsibility to provide girls with free, quality education. If we do not discuss investment in girls in the context of human right treaties, international law and convention obligations, what’s to ensure these investments in girls empowerment are sustainable and not a product of a passing fad?

We believe it is time to add an old sentiment to the new discussions on girl’s empowerment: girls rights, are human rights.

Keshet Bachan

Because I am a Girl 2010: Girls and ICTs (via Wait… What?)

Linda Raftree provides a great summary of the ‘Girls and ICTs’ chapter from the 2010 ‘State of the World’s Girls’!

Because I am a Girl 2010: Girls and ICTs The urban and digital environments are the 21st century’s fastest-growing spheres. Both offer enormous potential for girls around the world, but prejudice and poverty exclude millions of girls from taking advantages of the transformative possibilities that cities and information and communication technologies (ICTs) can offer.  Exploitation a … Read More

via Wait… What?

The State of the World’s Girls 2010

Today’s the day!!

September 22nd  Is the culmination of a year’s work – we have all sweated blood, and sometimes tears, over our annual publication Because I am A Girl: The State of the World’s Girls which looks at the position of girls worldwide and demonstrates, to us at least, the value of feminism – there is a lot to do. 

Why in the 21st century are boys still valued more, fed more and when it comes to the crunch, in most parts of the world, will be kept in school, be paid more as they grow up and do far less of the world’s boring jobs both at home and at “work”. “It’s not fair” has become a mantra and we are often hard pressed to understand why not everyone is as up in arms as we are.

Did you know that in Asia 60 million girls are “missing” from the population because of sex selective abortions – though they are of course illegal – that pregnancy is a leading cause of death for young women between 15-19, and that nearly 50% of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls under 15. 

We could go on,  but there is another side of the story which the reports cover – girls worldwide succeeding against the odds, getting an education, supporting their families, running their own businesses and getting on with their lives.  Their stories are inspirational to those of us who have had it much easier so today, as this year’s report is launched on an unsuspecting world, we celebrate resilience and determination – and get on with next year’s work.  We also thank the people we have worked with – girls and young women from all over the world have contributed, so have colleagues worldwide and members of our advisory panel, academics, other NGOs, and supporters from all walks of life too numerous to name and praise.

This year we looked at “Girls in a Changing Landscape”, the impact on girls’ lives and chances, of the growth of urban living and new technology where benefits and risks live side by side in equal measure – will exploitation or opportunity win out? Next year we will examine the role of young men and boys in delivering genuine equality.

Check out the report, let us know what you think, what you do and whether the phrase “I am not a feminist but…” should be banned for ever?

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