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From poverty to prosperity: Achieving lasting change for girls

8 October 2014
Girls of all ages deserve particular attention in policy and programming. That was the message from panellists at the launch of the European Week of Action for Girls 2014, who gathered in Brussels to discuss how the EU can better promote girls rights and tackle gender discrimination.

Experience shows that when girls are not explicitly mentioned as a unique cohort, interventions do not reach them. Girls face particular and acute challenges which are different to those of women, men, and boys, and at the same time, girls’ experiences differ according to their age, with adolescent girls facing different challenges from younger girls, for example.

If you focus on women or youth as a group, warned Howard Taylor, Vice President of the Nike Foundation, you risk missing the particular needs of girls.

Mainstreaming v. Targeted action: Not either/or

How to go about this, however, drew divergent opinions from the panellists. Klaus Rudischhauser, Deputy Director General of the European Commission’s Development and Cooperation Directorate, argued that girls must be mainstreamed and integrated into every development project, not just those which traditionally target women and girls. Energy and transport, he argued, are two areas with tremendous potential to promote women’s and girls’ empowerment.

The risk with mainstreaming, however, is that it becomes an empty shell: a vehicle for theoretically targeting women and girls but which actually dissipates support via actions which only tangentially address their rights.

“If you are not careful, mainstreaming on its own can mean girls actually end up being forgotten about,” said Robert Glasser, CEO of Care International. Mainstreaming must, therefore, be accompanied by targeted action.

Flagship programmes are one method of ensuring sufficient attention and, crucially, funding are directed to girls, argued Michele Dominique Raymond, Assistant Secretary General at the ACP Secretariat. She called for such a flagship to be included in the 11th European Development Fund, the main source of EU aid for African, Caribbean and Pacific states.

Changing attitudes: Engaging men and boys

In order to effectively tackle gender discrimination, programmes must aim to change attitudes at the socio-cultural level, where inequality is at its most potent.

The idea that women are subordinate to men, and that men and women have completely different roles and responsibilities in life, has become entrenched in many societies.

Change, however, will not happen overnight.

“Changing attitudes takes more than days, weeks or months. Shifting social norms may take not years, but generations,” warned Alexandra Makaroff, Head of Plan EU Office. “We therefore have no time to lose. We need to work with girls themselves, but also with parents, communities and the state itself.

“Crucially, we must make sure men and boys are involved in the fight for gender equality. This is not just a ‘women’s issue’ - without engaging men and boys, we will never achieve equality. We must not simply preach to the converted,” she added.

Social media: A platform for the voiceless

In the face of engrained harmful social norms and institutionalised inequality, it is crucial that new platforms are available to girls and women, where they can challenge the status quo and defend their rights.

Social media provides this opportunity. “Girls and women can speak out anonymously online. This gives them an opportunity they might not otherwise have had,” argued UN Women Brussels Director Dagmar Schumacher.

As the global population with access to social media platforms continues to increase, it has enormous potential as a vehicle for raising awareness of girls’ rights – both among girls themselves and the wider community – she added.

But while social media can break down traditional hierarchies and mobilise people all over the world behind a single cause, converting this momentum into tangible and sustainable change remains a challenge as it tends to create symbolic figures rather than genuine leaders.

In addition, panelists highlighted that it can actually be a double-edged sword, with human rights defenders often being subjected to a violent backlash online. This, combined with the difficulty of tracking down and holding perpetrators to account, can often deter people from speaking out online.