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Voices / Column

Studying the ‘girl effect’

Saxtons River

When a baby is born in [my village in Bangladesh],” Sanchita says, “families desperately hope it will be a boy.  It is believed that boys will contribute to the family income in a place where people are very poor.” 

    Sanchita’s words were spoken recently by actress Anne Hathaway at a meeting hosted by the World Bank to draw attention to “the girl effect” — “the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate.”

Part of the Adolescent Girls Initiative undertaken by the World Bank and the Nike Foundation, the two-year old initiative is designed to empower girls in poor countries through education geared to help them transition into the workforce.

    A dozen young women from developing Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries participated in the meeting.  They are just a few of the females benefiting from training and education programs that will help them participate in the labor market.

Sanchita, for example, borrowed $60 after getting her primary education.  With it, she bought a cow and started a vegetable garden.  Her profits enabled her to pay her own school fees as well as her brother’s, and to contribute to her family.  Now her parents hope she won’t marry too soon.

* * *

In preparation for the meeting, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) prepared a report, “The Girl Effect: What Do Boys Have to Do with It?,” underscoring the need to focus on “the brothers, fathers, friends, and partners” of young women to address the consequences of gender-based discrimination.

“Without the involvement and commitment of men and boys to girls’ empowerment and gender equity,” the report says, “the impact of the ‘girl effect’ may fall short.  Furthermore, boys are also ‘gendered’  — affected and shaped by gender norms — and have an interest in changing rigid, inequitable, and harmful gender norms.”

    There are varying schools of thought on how to engage boys and men in the empowerment of girls and women.  ICRW advocates for a “gender and developmental perspective” that underscores what boys have to do with the “girl effect.”

    Key to this approach is understanding the physical and emotional development of adolescent boys and girls as well as the socialization they experience as males and females.

For example, adolescent boys often gain increased freedom and peer support, whereas girls are likely to spend more time isolated at home with other female family members.  Male networks become an important socializing force that emphasizes competition and aggression.  Girls, on the other hand, are expected to be passive, remaining naïve and virginal.  This situation can lead to inequitable decision-making in relationships as well as to partner violence. 

    Several programs now operate from this perspective to address inequities that curtail the “girl effect.”

One is Program H (for hombres), used by more than 20 Spanish-speaking countries.  Using a video, Once upon a Boy, the program helps young men question traditional norms related to manhood.  The video enables young men in various settings to create dialogue and share personal stories about social pressure, sexual experiences, and violence.

    In Mumbai, India, a school-based program, “Parivartan,” enlists coaches and community members to serve as role models for boy cricket players ages 10 to 16 in more than 100 schools.  The program helps both mentors and kids to adopt different values about what it means to be men.

    “Entre Madres y Amigas,” a Nicaraguan program, focuses on the critical role of mothers in a culture where girls have limited mobility. It fosters intergenerational dialogue around issues of sexuality and reproductive health.

    In South Africa, “Stepping Stones” provides a training package on gender communication and HIV.  It consists of both sex-specific and mixed-sex programming in safe spaces where participants can explore the issues related to the virus and its effect on gender and relationship issues.

    At the 2009 Global Symposium on Engaging Boys and Men in Gender Equality, held in Rio de Janeiro, participants reached consensus on a set of expectations for boys from a gender equality perspective.  Among them were respect and support for girls and women as equal members of society in all walks of life; mutual decision-making around sexual and reproductive health issues as well as other intimate domains; and accepting and feeling comfortable with the “feminine” aspects of their personalities and with those of other men.

    The Adolescent Girls Initiative, a public-private partnership with $20 million in funds, is at work in seven countries and will soon expand to Haiti and Yemen.  It is also in Liberia, where Kebbeh Kamara benefited from training.

“I learned how to start a business, how to earn money on your own, how to be self-sustainable,” she told the World Bank audience.

“I learned about how to express myself.  Eye contact, speak loud,” Sarah Saturnino of Southern Sudan added. “This way can give me a voice…. I’m somebody now.” 

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Originally published in The Commons issue #80 (Wednesday, December 15, 2010).

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