‘The Girl Effect’ and what it obscures

The Secretary of State for International Development, the Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP, gave the inaugural annual lecture on International Development on 1 May, hosted by Warwick University’s Global Research Priority programme on International Development (GRP ID). Ms Greening spoke about ‘The Girl Effect: why tackling gender inequality can transform the developing world’.

In her welcome comments, Shirin Rai, Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, noted that the status of women and girls is critically important in the current context of a prolonged economic crisis that affects the lives of millions. Women and girls are particularly affected by cuts to social welfare, unemployment, and a shift towards temporary and low paid employment. Rai said that decisions about education and health in contexts of poverty and gender inequality are going against girls, and political, social and religious conflicts are negatively affecting their lives too.

The Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP

In her lecture, Ms Greening explained that girls in many countries face a smaller world of opportunities compared to their brothers. Women have limited access to land ownership, credit and bank accounts, and one in three will experience sexual violence inside or outside the home. The burden of child marriages falls primarily on girls. It shapes their role in the family and in society, and can, if they become pregnant before their bodies are ready, result in obstetric fistula.

Ms Greening announced that DFID is committed to tackling two issues in particular – child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). In the past the cultural and religious dimensions of these issues were seen as too difficult to address, but today the UK is the largest donor to an African-led movement to end FGM in 17 African countries.

On 22 July this year, DFID will host a ‘Girls Summit’ in London as part of a global movement to end child marriage and FGM. The aim is to bring together different actors to get a commitment to end FGM in one generation. In closing her speech, Ms Greening issued a call for the UK to lead the way in ending the devastating impact of child marriages and FGM.

The view from the audience – Dr Juanita Elias

Justine Greening’s speech to the GRP ID highlighted how issues of women’s and girls’ health, economic prosperity and educational and life chances are being taken seriously by DFID. The speech was well received by the audience members and in highlighting and speaking out against the issues of child marriage and FGM, Ms Greening focussed on issues that, I imagine, the entire audience would agree with. However, it is necessary to engage critically with the vision of women and girls development that Ms Greening put forward in her speech.

Whilst recognising that harmful cultural practices such as FGM and child marriage impact in dreadful ways on the lives of girls around the world, I was left girl effectwondering about what gets left out of the government’s invocation of ‘the girl effect’. Why focus only on child marriage and FGM at the ‘Girl Summit’ to be held in London in June? Why not focus on how girls are affected by the persistence of child poverty, child labour, infant mortality, or other forms of child abuse? Whilst the Girl Summit may touch on these other issues in relation to the discussion of FGM and child marriage, it should be recognised that responding to these issues may entail asking some very tricky questions about the way in which the neoliberal model of development endorsed by this (and previous) UK governments has generally failed to address the needs of women and girls around the world in meaningful ways.

In many respects, Greening’s approach was one of ‘add women (and girls now too) and stir’ to existing ways of doing development. Consistently, women and girls were presented by Greening as an untapped economic resource; as simply needing skills and education and the rolling back of traditional attitudes that keep them out of the workplace. Working, entrepreneurial, women are thus the key to development success (echoing Christine Lagarde’s recent comments about women being an ‘underutilised’ resource). But as feminist political economists point out, such perspectives undervalue the essential work that many women do within the household: pushing women to take on more and more productive work may have very negative impacts for women’s welfare.

How women ‘fit’ within neoliberal development frameworks was revealed in the answer to a question from the floor about the relationship between women’s empowerment and land rights. Greening acknowledged that land rights could play a significant role in raising women’s status and undermining patriarchal gender norms. But at the same time she suggested that land rights also matter in terms of creating a business environment that would attract foreign investors. Following the event live on Twitter, I noticed that the Warwick Gender and Development Conference (@GendevWarwick) countered this comment with a link to this recent report on the development impacts of land grabbing by multinational corporations.

My final concern is with the term ‘the girl effect’ itself. This phrase was coined by the Nike Foundation – a foundation linked to the well-known sportswear brand. Their engagement with development issues has centred on promoting the ‘girl effect’ or ‘the most powerful force for change on the planet’. Critics have raised concerns about why the Nike Foundation is so interested in girls (see here and here). Obviously the idea of empowering girls fits well with the company’s brand (‘Just Do It’), although one might also take the cynical view that it obscures the extent to which the corporation has been complicit in the exploitation of female and child labour in its subcontractor factories. The fact that a UK government department with a long history of doing gender and development work is now looking to a multinational corporation to set its gender and development agenda is an issue that begs for future research and critical reflection.

GRP IDWarwick’s Global Research Priority programme on International Development brings together a range of cutting edge, critical, multi-disciplinary work on development. Its co-directors are Profs Shirin Rai (PAIS) and Ann Stewart (Law).

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