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.