How do we make girls’ empowerment work for everyone?

Women and girls’ empowerment is, it would seem, a la mode in the development world. Both the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID have focused heavily on girls’ education and gendered anti-violence projects recently. While ending gender-based violence and promoting girls’ education are of significant importance, the focus on the distinction between boys and girls ignores the gender spectrum in favour of a binary understanding of sex.

The difficulty, of course, is that in many countries women still are at a significant disadvantage to men when it comes to health, education, and rights. In Pakistan it is estimated that up to 90% of women and girls face domestic abuse. In Somalia, it was identified in 2010 that up to 95% of the poorest girls aged 7 to 16 had never been to school. Even in the UK, there is a 24% differential for lifelong employment earnings between men and women. Clearly, there is not gender parity in most countries in the world.

Gender-sensitive approaches and gender-focused work are of vital importance. The international development community as a whole cannot pretend that targeted approaches are not necessary. But gender parity, unfortunately, often has a distinctly binary vocabulary. Men versus women, boys versus girls. When trying to promote women’s empowerment, how does the international development community avoid the pitfalls of duality? There is no simple answer to this question. Targeted empowerment can necessitate differentiation, but creating an us and them is detrimental to the fight for human equality. However, there are a few ways to avoid this inevitability:

  • Stop making women and girls the other

Using the binary boys and girls definition of gender creates a divide, with girls falling into the other category as the male sex is assumed to be the norm. Outside of the realm of international development, the This Girl Can campaign illustrates this; the title itself suggests that girls need to be told they can do certain things which boys are implicitly able to do. Indeed, linguistic feminists argue that this is the case with the English language; the female is always the other in speech. By actively fighting the latent pro-male bias of language in a way that neutralises, rather than pro-feminises, language, campaigners can simultaneously promote the rights of women as well as all other individuals across the gender spectrum. When no gender is the norm, no gender is the other.

  • Establish an us narrative

By ensuring that communication is about bringing girls in to the us and ensuring there is no difference within the unified us, the space is open for a range of genders to be considered. The Equal Rights to Quality Education project, for example, streamlines female-focused housing projects into a united effort to improve education in Tanzania. This addresses a key barrier to girls’ education, while at the same time lifting the whole community in a cohesive movement. Thus, pro-female projects fall within wider work to establish a unified us, rather than an equality between males and females.

  • Work for a united movement

Recent campaigns such as the UN’s HeForShe have encouraged men to be involved in the women’s empowerment movement. This represents a crucial and welcomed improvement in the discourse of gender politics. However, all individuals, regardless of gender identity, must be invited into the debate. Under a united movement, differentiated campaigns support a wider goal. All gender identities must be welcome to partake in all gender-based work, addressing diverse issues under one umbrella movement.

Emma Watson speaks at the launch for the UN Women's HeForShe initiative in 2015

Emma Watson speaks at the launch for the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative | UN Women

With this dialogue, there is no other, only one us, for which all gender identities are working through various, targeted projects.

The vogue of girl-focused projects, separating children into girls versus boys, ignores a whole cast of players on the international stage. Freedom of gender is not a first-world right, it is everyone’s right. Gender duality highlights differences rather than creating a collective humanity. A changed narrative and a more joined-up approach could help to address what may actually be a damaging trend for an equal world in the long-run.

Thumbnail image: Olaf Kellerhoff


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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