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The girl effect - empowering or divisive?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Africa, Girls & Women

Getting back to work after the new year break also means a return to the fascinating digital world. I've highlighted the importance of inter-dependency between education and IT provision to support development in Africa in some posts last year.

I spent some time musing on GapMinder World: a fascinating website where Google software supports the visual representation of development trends, with insightful commentary by Prof. Hans Rosling. For example 'Smaller Families and Longer Lives' has an animated bubble graph showing a time series from 1950 - 2009 in which most countries drift across the chart, leaving a sad collection of blue balls representing several African states in the corner. (It's much better to see it for yourself to understand!)

In the blogosphere, Anna Carella's post on Aid Watch critiques 'Girl Effect' - a recent ripple of support for focusing development initiatives on women and girls. It certainly ruffled feathers and stimulated debate. Girl Effect has generated a lot of high profile support with public and private initiatives such as the Girl Hub.


Girl Effect's PR savvy media, such as the clip above, provides compelling viewing! The supporting literature presents a strong case to target girls and younger women in particular through health, education and economic empowerment activities. The main premise being this will have a multiplier effect on poverty given women's key role in areas such as child raising, agriculture and community awareness.

The Aid Watch post questions the rationale, such as whether macro economic development matters more and whether the approach is being paternalistic and may even be damaging to women. For example, provoking gender based violence due to the implied exclusion/alienation of men in the local community or household.

From time spent in Nigeria, and now in Zimbabwe, I don't think it’s a matter of  either or. Both the gender specific initiatives and broader generic programmes of reform and development are needed. And, dependent upon circumstances, may be very productive or fail due to local circumstances beyond one's control or the lack of a balanced, sensitive participatory approach.

Targeting support to adolescent girls so they can complete secondary education, I think, is vital. The evidence clearly shows that attending secondary school protects girls from dropping-out, early marriage and as a consequence, teen pregnancy and higher rates of mother and infant mortality.

Photo: school girls in Zimbabwe
School girls in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, the NGO CAMFED has an excellent and long-established programme of support for thousands of rural girls in completing secondary education and establishing themselves, whilst also networking to build the local community. The Government provides similar financial support for 200,000 orphans and vulnerable children to complete secondary school (EU, DFID and other donors support at the primary level). Whilst at the review workshop last week, I learnt that this programme stipulated that at least 50% of the beneficiaries are girls, with a strong emphasis on  the 'at least'!

Gender based violence is unfortunately common and the Zimbabwean newspapers report regular accounts of sensational rape cases and domestic violence. Working through UNICEF there will be a new phase of support in 2011 to tackle violence and abuse of children, especially girls, including strengthening of victim-friendly court systems. Approaches such as this are endorsed by research, for example conducted by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre.

Whilst worth reflecting on the potentially adverse effects of 'positive female discrimination', I think the situation on the ground clearly indicates the need for more of a girl focus. How to make these programmes operate effectively is a challenge I encounter on a daily basis!

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  1. Comment by Rosaleen Cunningham posted on

    Hi Ian. I was very interested to read your post about the discussion around girls and younger women.

    I am currently in Pakistan for the six-month anniversary of the floods. On a visit to a rural health centre, the staff told me that apparently 80% of the older people coming there are older women.

    The head doctor, Dr Wagma, made some very moving comments which I'd like to share with you.

    She said: "Older women come for many reasons. A lot of it we can put down to psycho-social causes, but the symptoms are hypertension, acute respiratory infections, vague general body aches. 20% of the older women I see are suffering from psycho-social illnesses such as depression. But the other 80% are in real physical need of treatment.

    "Most of these illnesses are either directly or indirectly related to post-menopause - arthiritis, osteoporosis, or uterus lapses and vaginal bleeding due to difficult and multiple childbirths.

    "Many would benefit from hormone therapies, as well as treatment for depression and hypertension. But these medicines are expensive and cannot be accessed publicly. It can be access privately, but this needs money.

    "It also involves seeking permission from her husband for the money to be spent on this.

    "In my opinion, every woman in old age is suffering bad health because of reproductive health reasons.

    "I wish someone out there cared and would focus on older women's health. If young women's lives and children's lives are important, why not an older woman's? I'm looking at myself in the future when I'm asking this question."

    Her comments really stirred me. I work for HelpAge International and we provide health services and advocate for better health for older people. But why aren't we - the wider development community - doing more on older women's health?

    Maybe agencies such as WHO, UNFPA or DFID are deeply concerned about this? But if they are, we don't hear about it. Perhaps because the focus is so much on girls and young women.

    Is that national governments and international donors don't take this seriously? Why is the menopause still a bit of a joke, relying on older feminists and writers to draw attention to it? Does reproductive health exclude post-reproductive women?

    If so, is this right? I'd love to hear yours and your readers' thoughts.

  2. Comment by Wale Osofisan posted on

    Just to add to the previous comment by Rosaleen, a colleague of mine at HelpAge International. It is truly heartbreaking to see older people systematically excluded by development agencies. The focus is mainly on children, especially girls and rightly so. However, to reach most children especially in rural areas, project intervention also need to target older people especially, older women.

    I recently carried out a study on social protection in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Northern Kenya and was not really surprised to see that the demographic characteristics in most villages is heavily skewed towards older women and children with the former taking responsibility for the latter. This is because majority of the middle aged adults have fled to the urban centres and have abandoned their parents and children in the villages. Very few send remittances.

    It is about time development agencies acknowledge the fact that poverty and vulnerability cuts across all ages and the brunt is often borne by older women trapped in rural areas.

  3. Comment by Ian Attfield posted on

    Roasleen, Wale,

    Thanks for pointing out your concerns that elderly women get left out in the development priorities and have both large untapped potential to help and also of course needs.
    I think the rationale on education support being targetted to the young is that over time they are more likely to be able make changes to limit their vulernability in old age.

    Of course social protection should support the elderly, buts in AIDS ravaged Southern Africa life expectancy has dropped down into the 40s and the elderly take on the care giving role for orphans.

    New initiatives under design in Zimbabwe aim to give cash transfers to HHs made up of children, the elderly and the sick with no fit adults who can work. This will often means that monthly payments go to the grandmother who is tending for the children of their dead children. In s small way this also offers support and recognition to the vital role they fill.