Beyond Simply Investing In Girls
Placing girls and women (and for that matter cows) at the heart of development initiatives has been the new mantra; to refocus energies on an untapped opportunity and a crucial requirement for global health and future communities and economies. As Rwanda and countries across the globe recently celebrated the International Women’s Day, one saw a surge of interest in women and girls because it is the ‘right thing to do’. Investing in women and girls is considered ‘smart economics’, as a way to end poverty and drive long-term growth and prosperity.
Dominant development discourse pushing for gender equality argues ‘that keeping a girl from school has long ranging impact on their ability to provide for her present and her future family, on the economic growth of her society and even country, on gender balancing as girls eventually move into more positions of power and influence, and on her sense of self worth’ (Lipkin 2009, p.198). Thus, these investments seek to rectify the consequences of gender-based discrimination.
Nothing wrong with this picture! In fact, these campaigns can be seen as a welcoming attempt to reinvigorate the gender agenda by acknowledging the importance of women’s rights as human rights. To realise these rights a number of initiatives and projects across Africa and the world advocating for empowerment of girls and women have been introduced. For instance, the Kishori Abhijan initiative for the empowerment of adolescent girls in Bangladesh; the Laadli scheme in India; and the girl child project in Pakistan and so forth. Such interventions can become echo chambers that ultimately induce social change. As a tool of popular media, it can be a powerful platform to provide alternatives. But is it really counteracting the negative gender norms pervasive in society? Or is it reproducing the narrative whereby gender parity is important because it makes economic sense?
Well, if carefully scrutinized the Girl Effect video, for instance, proposes that girls once educated have the means to become financially more independent which would then automatically bring wealth and stability to the household, followed by a ‘thriving’ village economy and ultimately to the economy of an entire country. It calls upon women to carry the dual burden of household work and wealth creation. The campaign also seems to suggest or rather operates entirely under the assumption that girls/women are victims who need to be saved. Cornwall (2007) writes about one such example of economic empowerment programmes being pursued by foreign NGOs in the Middle East, that combine a discourse of “‘freedom’ with an instrumentalist view of ‘liberating’ women from the shackles of ‘culture’ and pay scant attention to the structural roots of women’s disempowerment” (p. 70). The overemphasis on girls/women as the final solution to all the problems related to food insecurity, war, education, health and sanitation – ‘invest in her and she will do the rest’ – completely ignores the entrenched systems and structures that constrain her movement in the first place. As if they live in isolation outside the physical reality of existing social systems.
What about men? Men are rather seen as the problem in most policy that addresses gender and as a result remain mostly invisible in the larger discussions pertaining to gender equality. Again straightjacketing all men as one within the traditional notion of masculinity tends to ignore the intersectionality of various factors which affect each group differently. It is crucial to recognize that the ‘identities, experiences, and practices of different groups of men and boys vary widely, depending on factors such as race, age, culture, class and sexual orientation (Ruxton 2004, p. vii).’ Dominant masculinities affect women and other socially vulnerable men equally in different contexts, hence, ‘the need to inform or sensitise men’ (Keijzer 2004, p. 35) because they may be unaware how many masculine traits can affect them negatively. The same maybe applied to girls/women and how they are not one homogenous category of subjects. In other words there is a need for development policy and practice to move beyond one dimensionality and using broader categories to identify its intended ‘beneficiaries’ (Sweetman 2004).
For a campaign that intends to promote a better future for the developing world, the amount of prejudice and ignorance that is evident is worth questioning. Despite all its good intentions the campaign seems to follow a linear route of entrusting all responsibility on girls for taking upon themselves to fight poverty and conflict that has been created by the dominant discourse of development to begin with. Its paramount importance to building the capacity of one section, that is primarily women, is in complete disregard of the notion of gender equality it wishes to address by ignoring gender diversity that exists in society. It does not reach out, at least in its advocacy, to men and other groups like homosexuals, transgender, etc in this supposedly joint effort to bring families and communities together. In other words, while it talks about a glaring need for a gender sensitive approach, the message is ambiguous in many ways. It presumes firstly, that all men are the perpetrators and secondly, that boys/men have access to education, health and sanitation and other basic services. It does not appear to take into account that all groups are differentially affected by poverty and conflict and therefore it becomes imperative that development initiatives are designed accordingly.
These videos remind us of what happens when we lose sight of the complex post-colonial power dynamics at play here. What ends up happening instead is the ‘mothering’ of the female body and endorsement of linear development processes. How about we bring back the attention to entrusting responsibility on the governments, policies/programmes and governing systems and not the poor girls? Any post 2015 sustainable development agenda must focus on the enabling environment and social and economic structures that limit the realisation of women’s rights. In my opinion development processes strengthened through enhanced recognition of state obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment would be a more sensible approach. Governments and policy-makers need to look beyond just the ‘economic sense’ and work towards cultivating attitudes and behaviours that would shape understanding of women’s rights positively.
Secondly, men must be seen as part of the solution, as active collaborators and not passive bystanders, unlike the Girl Effect or She Builds campaigns that primarily attribute to girls the task of saving the world. The emerging focus on men is not to say that there is too much focus on women, ‘rather, it reflects increasing recognition that examining men’s power (and those who are disempowered) and responding to masculinity issues are vital elements of the efforts to build gender equality’ (Ruxton 2004, p. 3). Engaging men in gender-related advocacy and development needs to start with a shift from a mentality of blame to one of inclusion.
In this context, an example of how roles of men can be recrafted within this new understanding of the need to involve men as equal participants, say, is the idea of fathers as carers, and not just providers, which has been articulated in public discourses, legislation, and policy in Sweden. The most significant political effort to realize the other part of the vision, “making dad pregnant,” was the introduction of paternity leave thus recognizing fathers’ identities, capacities, (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+best+of+both+worlds%3F+Fatherhood+and+gender+equality+in+Swedish…-a017701“>Klinth 2008) and responsibilities as parents and simultaneously challenging traditional family norms that defined women as ‘carers’ and men as ‘earners’ and the implicit power relations that continue to sustain these identities however in other contexts. Similarly, an example of another gender advocacy campaign – ‘the White Ribbon Campaign’ (UK) serves as an important case study as it does exactly that by engaging in public education of men and making them aware about their silence about men’s violence against women (Kaufman 2004). A third interesting example of ensuring that men are made an integral part of a development programme is the Men as Partners (USA) initiative the idea behind which is to engage men in service-delivery settings and communities in the context of reproductive health and how their behaviours and choices they make have the ability to provide safer spaces for women and children who are often placed at risk (Mehta et al 2004). All these examples help in visiblising men who remained hitherto unmentioned in the earlier debates.
To sum it up, yes, these campaigns may be all about transforming the prospects of every girl in the world and thus ending intergenerational poverty. But the proposed ‘investments’ (in this case investment in projects focused on girl child and women) must go hand in hand with engagement and participation of all groups. There is a strong need to understand the deeply entrenched social and economic hierarchies and those social, historical and cultural arrangements that sustain inequality and injustice. Only focusing on blame reproduces the gender binary the campaign is trying to do away with. And again while not precluding men, one must also take into account other genders and their subjectivities into the ongoing discussion. In that sense, acknowledging gender diversity and bringing the various groups to the table is an essential step in the direction to what so many of us call social change where gender then becomes one of the lens through which we address and hope to understand some of the underpinnings of questions related to poverty, conflict, social justice, sustainable livelihoods and development.
As Cornwall (2007) succinctly puts it addressing gender equality then ‘calls for seeing ‘women’ and ‘men’ as plural categories constituted by social practices, including those of development agencies themselves. It calls for shifting the frame from unhelpful presumptions to a closer analysis of the power relations that create and sustain social injustice – and on those social practices, including those of development agencies, that can offer liberating alternatives’ (p. 77).
By Surbhi Mahajan