Srila Roy, Wits University

The United Nations created the International Day of the Girl on October 11, 2012, to draw attention to the vulnerabilities and threats that girls still face in many parts of the world today. It has also become a day to celebrate the resilience and potential of girls. Many of us partook in the celebrations and indeed, we should. But we should also be cautious about what we are celebrating.

Let me share a few things that struck me about #DayoftheGirl on Twitter:

The girls in view were overwhelmingly from what we used to call the ‘Third World’, and is today referred to as the Global South. I am referring, of course, to the countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, which are still considered to be ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ in relation to the advanced industrialised economies of the West/North. This should come as no surprise. The face of poverty has always been from this part of the world and more so than not, female. While it is of course the case that challenges remain in these countries, it is also the case that gender inequalities are on the rise globally. In order to mark the International Day of the Girl, The Guardian reported from the results of a study that showed how poorly the world’s largest economy, the USA, fared in this regard:

‘The US came 32nd in the index due to its low representation of women in parliament, high teenage pregnancy rates and its record on maternal deaths. Fourteen women died per 100,000 live births in the US in 2015, a similar number to Uruguay and Lebanon’.

Austerity policies in the North have been driving up child poverty with the UK having some of the highest levels of food insecurity amongst children, both boys and girls. Many poor countries fare better, like Rwanda that has the highest proportion of female MPs in the world, and Nepal that has the same lower-secondary school completion rate for girls as Spain. This is just some data that should make us think about gender inequalities across the world as opposed to the tendency to associate poverty and underdevelopment with girls in some parts of the world alone. It should also make us think of inequalities as affecting young people as a whole.

Some, but #notallgirls?

Partly, our news and social media is still dominated by images of some and not all girls because their plight is often linked to the ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ of the place that they belong to. So, the other thing that struck me about #DayoftheGirl was the number of posts on child marriage. Indeed, ‘traditional’ practices like child marriage are often treated as the number one evil for the lower status of girls in non-Western contexts. However, as I have shown in a recent academic article, the practice of marrying off girls at a young age is often motivated by structural causes – poverty, the lack of mobility and resources, the lack of viable alternatives like education and employment – than it is by religion or custom. And yet ‘culture’ becomes an easy substitute for understanding complex power relations and the causes for the low status of women and girls in the Global South.

Education is presented as the chief alternative to marriage and for improving the lives of girls more generally. However, there are strong structural inequalities that mean education alone is not a magic bullet: poor quality education,  the lack of requisite skills and training, and the sheer size of the educated unemployed population. Without a wider commitment towards redistributive policies, education provides no ideal solution. The employment solutions presented by development organizations— microfinance, income-generation schemes, etc.—are market-based, invariably piecemeal, intermittent, and low-paid. They often end up deepening rather than reducing the vulnerability of young women in an unfair and unsafe labour market. Ironically, the same agents that perpetuate inequalities – national governments, international aid agencies and corporation – are the loudest voices championing the rights of girls on the International Day of the Girl.

The final thing that struck me on the day was the instrumental logic behind celebrating girls. By instrumental logic, I mean the ways in which the empowerment of girls (and women) come to be linked to larger goals – everything from advancing the family and the community to the nation.

Thus, we have Michelle Obama saying ‘no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women…’ to UNICEF tweeting ‘when girls do better, we all do better’. Other rallying cries included ‘Empowering a girl child is empowering our nation’ and ‘We must continue to empower women & girls because when they succeed we all benefit!’

These kinds of slogans have acquired commonsensical status in our times. We know that ‘investing’ in girls and women will help when it comes to key development indicators – health, education, poverty – but also that such an investment makes sound business sense. Corporates like Nike and Coca-Cola have entered the field of development in order to capitalise on the hidden potentials of girls. ‘By delaying child marriage and early birth for one million girls, Bangladesh could potentially add $69billion to the national income over these girls’ lifetimes’.

Whether corporatised or not, development becomes tied to economic growth and gain, and increasingly for private profit. In other words, institutions and agents are less concerned with women’s empowerment and rights than they are with the ‘benefits’ that such an investment might return to them. Surely, this logic of ‘investment’ and ‘benefits’ goes against the basic tenants behind the idea of celebrating the International Day of the Girl.

As anthropologist Kathryn Moeller — whose new book critiques Nike’s development programme — writes, ‘Girls’ education should be promoted because girls matter in and of themselves, rather than because of their potential value as instruments of development change’.

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