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Archive for February, 2011

Young women and the global economy

A short interview I gave the International Trade Centre (part of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization) on the 1st expert roundtable on the gender dimensions of aid for trade:

For more on girls and labour force participation go to the 2009 ‘Because I am a Girl Report: Girls in the Global Economy – Adding it All Up’: http://plan-international.org/girls/resources/publications.php

Keshet Bachan

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Girls take New York by (snow) storm!

It’s still very early here in New York and still dark – outside my window the Chrysler building is obscured by the swirling flakes. What am I doing in NY in the middle of a blizzard? I’m here for the most important global meeting of women’s organizations in the world, the Commission on the Status of Women. Every year the United Nations spends two weeks discussing the issues that women and girls face across the globe and comes up with a document called ‘The Agreed Conclusions’ which in turn influences policy and budget allocations at member state level. In other words, the document that is produced by the end of this conference will be used by us, Civil Society, to hold governments to account and say – hey! You signed up to this document promising more investment in girls education, now show me the money!

But it’s not enough that policy specialists and thematic experts and well known academics have their say. In fact, what’s really important is to make sure the real experiences of girls and boys from the countries who most need the help of huge influential bodies like the United Nations, are heard and taken into account. That’s why this year Plan International has brought together a phenomenal delegation of 13 girls from Finland, Canada, USA, Sierra Leon, Cameroon and Indonesia. They are here to make sure the United Nations listens to their perspective, to their thoughts and ambitions and dreams and fears and hopes and needs.

The girls arrived here and the first thing we heard was – it’s so cold! Yes, the girls seemed surprised by the low temperature, but had a great time piling on various coloured articles of clothing to create a dazzling array miss-matched outfits! Needless to say, the rest of us are faring no better bundled up in so many layers we waddle like ducks.

It may be cold out there – but it’s warm in our ‘girl friendly’ zone! One of our hotel rooms has been converted into a ‘girl space’ where they hang out together and spend their free time. This year the theme of the Commission on the Status of Women is the role of Information Communication Technology in women and girls empowerment. Well, they should simply come visit our girl-zone. They’ll see girls from different corners of the earth all similarly concerned with checking emails and updating their status on facebook, with very little regard to the differences of language, culture and background. These barriers have all but disappeared in the place where being an adolescent girl meets virtual space.

The girls have been flooded with requests to come speak at very high level panels and they have responded with enthusiasm! Eager to get their message out there, that girls are already tech savvy and the world needs to get with the program, they are spending the day polishing their speeches, tweeting and writing blog posts. Stay tuned for more as Plan’s girl-delegation takes the CSW by (snow?) storm!

If you want to hear more from the girls follow: @Plan_Youth or visit: planyouth.tumblr.com

Stay tuned for more updates from me as the week continues!!

Keshet Bachan

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Friendly folks on twitter recently brought this website http://www.the-girl-store.org/shop to my attention out of a strong sense of outrage which they assumed would be shared by every person with a drop of common sense and a gender equality expert like myself in particular. I urge readers to take a deep breath, align your chakras, make a relaxing cup of herbal tea, take a seat and check out the website. Once you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor, read on.

The website seems to be a fundraising strategy by Nanhi Kali an INGO working in India towards empowering girls through basic education. From the small amount of information available on their website their approach seems straightforward, provision of school supplies, which they assured me (the innocent reader) would make the difference between a girl ending up an empowered young woman and the self-same girl ending up a sexually exploited prostitute.

I don’t want this post to become a specific critique of one campaign, however much it galls me. I would like to focus instead on all campaigns, and on messages we (the development industry) sometimes send to our public which in effect do more harm than good to our constituency.

It’s so easy in the world of ever shrinking aid budgets, and the almost non-existent arena of funding for gender-equality related programming, to decide that every means are sanctified by our end goal. I beg to disagree.

Using the exact same narrative that has for centuries untold enslaved girls and women, under the unrelenting yoke of patriarchy, to the grinding despair of violence and exploitation cannot be sanctioned. Even if this means an increase in funding for transformative and even life saving programming, it cannot be abided. Civil society organizations, much like doctors, have a duty to first do no harm. By perpetuating a story that disempowers your constituency, commodifies them, objectifies them and sells them to the highest bidder in the name of ‘charity’ is beyond the pale.

Other campaigns have perpetrated similar ‘crimes against development’ by portraying crying children with distended stomachs as well as children with scarred and disfigured faces. It never ceases to surprise me that the rules that govern charitable campaigns for local causes are thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to charitable campaigns for the ‘exotic poor’. Regardless, by adding a gendered lens of analysis to these campaigns I find that the undertone of sexuality is a singularly unique attribute of ‘girl empowerment’ campaigns. Granted, girls are sexualized by society from the moment they hit puberty and become reproductive beings. And this is an important divergence which more than any other factor significantly alters their life trajectory when compared to boys.

However, it is our understanding of this issue that makes us doubly responsible for not abusing it in our messaging. Yes, adolescent girls have a right to say no, but they also have a right to say yes and it’s important that we don’t deny them that right by making it a zero sum game. You’re either chaste and in school or a prostitute. Surely we can imagine a broader spectrum of future possibilities for our daughters, and nieces and sisters? Surely we want a message of agency, of self fulfilment and self-respect to be at the core of any call to action?

I hope other campaigns that use disempowering dichotomies (‘you’re either poor and pregnant, or you get a loan and buy a cow’…) find a way of creating a more nuanced story without losing its desired effect. For now, I can only wait for the day girls in poor communities rise up and tell us their own stories themselves, without the ‘interpretation’ of well-meaning charities, and hope this day comes soon.

Keshet Bachan

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