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How do we empower girls? Listen to them

Written by Caroline Harper

​Women’s rights have gained much ground in the development community in the 20 years since the landmark Beijing Declaration really put the issue on the global agenda. While there’s no doubt that the challenges remain significant, with backsliding just as likely as new progress in many areas, we have seen a much needed increase in gender-focused programmes.

One noticeable change over the past 20 years is the welcome and increasing attention to girls, which was a focus missing from the Beijing Declaration. And it’s only in the last five years that policymakers and the development community have really focused on girls’ rights, rather than assuming that girls automatically benefit from efforts to tackle gender inequality. International agreements – notably the draft Sustainable Development Goals to be finalised this September – generally do refer to girls specifically, often with a focus on equal access to schooling or jobs, or on potentially harmful practices like female genital mutilation/cutting and early marriage.

Yet although the focus on girls is becoming mainstream, we still walk a difficult line between protecting the best interests of a child and empowering that child to determine her own path. Development programmers and the adult communities they work with often assume they know what girls need – yet viewing change through girls’ eyes can reveal something quite different.

We need to listen to girls and their communities

There’s only one way that we can understand girls’ social worlds, as our four years of research in Ethiopia, Viet Nam, Nepal and Uganda shows. And that’s by listening to them. Listening reveals how girls make choices in the often complex contexts of the particular constraints and opportunities they experience. Understanding these difficult but logical choices can in turn lead to better policy and practice.

One Ethiopian girl told us that she accepted her family’s decision that she marry while still a child because, coming from a poor family with a disabled father, she wanted to escape her caring duties. ‘When he requested my mother to marry me, I accepted the offer,’ she said. ‘Otherwise, my role could have been caring for my mother and my younger brothers.’ Clearly ending child marriage for this girl, without any positive alternatives such as an education or a job, or a family whose own livelihood could be strengthened, would have forced her into a worse situation.

To understand the wider structures of power and opportunity that affect girls’ choices, we also, of course, need to listen to their families and communities. Often it is work with men and boys that is most effective in changing the lives of girls, like the boys in India and Nepal who began advocating for their sisters’ education after participating in programmes that push for gender equality in schools.

Conversations, not lectures

If we understand the issues by listening, we can also change things by talking.

This doesn’t mean lecturing; castigating parents and communities for practices which are simply normal behaviour for them and their families, will not make for change. But our research has shown that real, two-way conversations with girls, parents and communities, as well as other communications and media work, can make a huge difference to what they understand as ‘normal’ behaviour. In many cases this can have more impact than efforts at material support and service provision.

Take the Berhane Hewan project in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, home to some of the highest rates of early marriage in the world. Complemented by house visits from mentors and group meetings, this programme found that conversations about a different reality for girls made a much greater difference than the support offered for schooling or livestock to alleviate poverty.  In one study, as many as 75% of adults surveyed said their views and actions on early marriage had changed as a result of these interventions.

Of course, these conversations need to be combined with other measures. Programme effectiveness in these complex areas varies enormously. In Senegal, public declarations had very little effect on reducing early marriage – but had a positive impact on ending female genital mutilation/cutting. Combining communications with other interventions, such as life skills and income generation activities, made even more of a difference.

Changing attitudes takes time, but girls require protection now

While our research has found clear ways to facilitate positive change, it is often a long game. In Nepal, Viet Nam and Uganda, girls experience early marriage in a markedly different way to their grandmothers, as new opportunities and practices emerge. Change is happening, but the pace can be painfully slow. 

In some circumstances however, change happens fast and it can lead to exploitative situations. While pathways to change remain unpredictable, donors and governments need to at least ensure there is proper safeguarding of young people. Without this, girls can be exposed to brutal and dangerous situations, as evidenced by girls’ experiences of ‘sugar daddies’ in Uganda, or Ethiopian girls migrating to the Middle East to work in the ‘maid trade’.

Positive change for girls is possible, and the surge of interest from the development world should make a difference.  But while the spotlight on adolescent girls is long overdue, it is crucial that development agencies and NGOs immerse themselves in local realities, listen to communities and girls themselves, and ensure their actions are in line with the capacities of girls and their communities to enable appropriate, safe and empowering change.

If we listen to girls now and help them become empowered adults, in 20 years’ time they in turn will listen to – and shape positive futures for – their own daughters.