Giving Girls Choices Around the World

You’ve probably heard of the Girl Effect. It’s the name of a project that the Nike Foundation started in 2008. There’s been quite a lot of press coverage. Big names like Larry Summers, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Farmer have endorsed the concept. The buzz is about data that shows when a developing country invests in young girls, the economic benefits multiply. Give her an education and she’ll start a business, then invest her money in her village and improve their lives while proving that girls are valuable (and making room for more girls to be like her). Data also shows that giving women money has greater benefits than giving it to men – “when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man,” according to The Girl Effect’s fact sheet. The amount of attention focused on the need to invest in women’s education and well-being is almost astonishing and incredibly important. These have been ignored for too long.

But as an Aid Watch blogger pointed out, there are some flaws amid the hype. The project relies on the notion that women are good investments because they are inherently more nurturing and inclined to take care of others. But why are we not addressing “the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?” Aid Watch asks. Why reinforce the stereotypes of women as caretakers and men as negligent without examining why these roles are so rigid? And by focusing on economic growth as the end goal, as opposed to gender equality in and of itself, it ignores some important issues. Aid Watch points out, “The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet the girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems.”

Perhaps, then, one of the best ways we can empower young girls is to focus on giving them viable choices about sex, not just on how well they take care of others. Give them contraception so that they can choose when and how often to get pregnant. As noted in Half the Sky, a recent book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, “122 million women around the world want contraception and can’t get it… up to 40 percent of all pregnancies globally are unplanned or unwanted.” Rather than rely on her to spread her money among many children, give her contraception and she has a better chance of controlling the size of her family and spacing out her pregnancies. Then she can make her money go further and have more agency over her own life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, reducing unplanned pregnancies gives girls more educational and employment opportunities while reducing public sector spending. (Not to mention that condoms save lives. Talk about economic benefits – it costs only $3.50 a year to save a life through distributing condoms and preventing HIV, versus $1,033 to save her life through a treatment program once she has AIDS, according to Half the Sky.) Westerners can help this cause while making the choice to have safe sex themselves by buying Sir Richards Condoms, which will donate a condom to a non-profit in the developing world for every condom they sell. Now that’s a real girl effect!

We also have to address the issues of rape, child marriage and other ways in which women are not in control of their sexual choices. Many women (in developed and developing countries alike) live in an environment that doesn’t value their choices about when and how they want to have sex. Just as it is important to focus at home on combating rape, global aid can help fight the forces that lead to it elsewhere. For example, The Girl Effect rightly focuses on giving girls an education, many of whom aren’t allowed or are unable to attend school. But it’s also important to educate boys about their responsibilities to respect women and their bodies and to educate all about safe and consensual sex.

Meanwhile, these projects depend on the stereotype that women in developing countries need to be saved. As Aid Watch points out, the video invites First World citizens to “fix” the lives of Third World women. “This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering,” the blog says. Why do we assume we know what they “need” more than they do? Western activists and aid workers have to acknowledge that those who are best able to address their problems are the women themselves. This is why it may be most helpful to focus on giving women as many choices as possible – give her the opportunity to control her reproduction so she can dictate her own life path. There’s clearly a demand for it.

Addressing these concerns means putting a woman’s well-being and equality first. It’s fantastic that empowering women has extra benefits. But it can’t be the only reason we work toward women’s rights around the world. Making sure that women have agency over their lives – particularly over their sexuality – is job number one.

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