Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been grappling with some tough questions. I believe to my core that girls need and deserve more resources to overcome the challenges they face. It would be easy to say that investing in girls is a win for everyone, and sweep my concerns under the rug. Easy, but ultimately counter-productive.
Dr. Kathryn Moeller, a professor of Education Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, has written eloquently and critically about the push to “invest in girls.” Her articles challenge the push for girls’ empowerment and education, forcing readers to consider how we approach girl justice more thoughtfully and humbly. While Moeller’s work focuses on girls internationally, many of her arguments apply equally well to efforts to “empower” girls from oppressed communities locally.
Read on for my takeaways, and the questions I’m still grappling with. To read Moeller’s work, see the works cited at the end of this post.
1. Focusing on investments leads to prioritizing economic outcomes, rather than supporting programs that promote girls’ rights for their own sake. Moeller 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.” (1)
How does reframing social justice as an investment opportunity change the work we do, or others’ understanding of it?
2. Collecting data and conducting analysis leads to unintended consequences. Investments should “pay off,” so girl advocates must prove that programs lead to measurable outcomes. According to Moeller, “efforts to count and track adolescent girls may seek to make the population category more visible” but they have created a new identity category “the trope of ‘Third World girl.’’
Expert researchers use data to create an image of the adolescent girl. This “statistical girl” is not real: she’s made of numbers. But she’s easier to understand than the complex, flesh and blood individuals in the real world. However, if we base our interventions on the model, we run the risk of adopting policies that address the mathematical girl’s issues, and fail to resonate with real live girls and their real live communities. (2)
What does being categorized as a “Third World Girl” mean (in both a positive and negative sense) for each individual girl? How does turning girls into statistics impact individuals girls and how we understand them?
3. Corporations advocate for girl empowerment, while continuing business practices that hurt girls and young women. Moeller adeptly observed that Nike began focusing on girls after they caught flack for horrific treatment of their predominately young, female, workforce. While The Girl Effect promotes individual girls as the solution, it shifts our attention away from the structural causes of poverty.
What is the role for corporations in girl justice? Can we harness their power without getting duped into promoting their PR agenda?
Much of Dr. Moeller’s work is published in academic journals, but it’s worth a trip to a university library to read her articles in their entirety. I will be waiting with baited breath for the release of her book in 2017. Keep up the great work Dr. Moeller!
(1) “Rethinking Why We Prioritize Girls’ Education” Huffington Post, March 2015
(2) “Proving ‘’The Girl Effect’’: Corporate knowledge production and educational intervention,” International Journal of Educational Development, Volume 33, Issue 6, 2013
(3) “Searching for Adolescent Girls in Brazil: Corporate Development and the Transnational Politics of Poverty in the Girl Effect.” Feminist Studies, Issue 40.3, 2014.