“The Girl Effect” is a catchphrase that epitomises the idea that girls can be the solution for improving life in thousands of communities in developing countries by fighting the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The Nike Foundation launched this movement in 2008, in collaboration with NoVo Foundation, United Nations Foundation and Coalition for Adolescent Girls. It soon became a global phenomenon and got its popularity through a short film that invited people to think differently about the role girls plays in reducing inequality.

Recent studies have in fact demonstrated that when a girl – living in a developing country – receives education, she will invest 90% of her future income back to her community, compared to 35% for a boy. Multiplying this number by the number of girls, the benefits are impressive and have a positive ripple effect on the whole society. The strategy proposed is quite simple: intervening before the future of these young girls becomes out of their control and giving them a chance to earn a living.

But how?

Preventing them from being married by the age of 14; pregnant by the time they are 15; at risk of being trafficked and forced to sell their child to survive; at risk of coercion and HIV; at risk of being at the mercy of the others. In practical terms, offering them education, healthcare, micro-loans to buy a cow and profit from the milk to support their family and become a positive driving force in their community.

The campaign suggestion is simple: invest in a girl, and she will do the rest, pulling herself and her community out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

This process reflects three fundamental assumptions:

1-   Girls are agents of change in developing countries

2-   Women’s programs in developing countries are not designed for young adolescents and don’t reflect their needs.

3-   Developing countries can’t afford the risk of not educating their girls.

Although the theory behind “The Girl Effect” is quite clear to understand, some scholars find it controversial to accept. More specifically, this campaign has raised several critics among feminist thinkers who believe that once again, there is a misinterpretation of the image of women – consequently – an inaccurate plan to fight inequality.

The main accusations concern the images shown in the short, catchy film, where young girls are depicted as victims to be saved by those with the power to make a difference. This is said to reflect and perpetuate two stereotypical dichotomies:

–       Weak, vulnerable, nurturing women vs. strong, resistant, working man;

–       Western, modern, developed side of  the world vs. backwards, underdeveloped, powerless rest of the world.

From a critical perspective, this message doesn’t face the structural problem of gender inequality and power imbalance. Rather, it uses these as a by-product of development strategies, focusing on what girls can do for development and not the other way around.

The point suggested is that women in developing countries already represent a large portion of unrecognised workforce, especially since they are the only source of chore doers. Therefore following a feminist strategy that does not take this into account, is a risk where the effects might be negative for the original mission. Not only does it perpetuate a biased status quo, but it also increases the gap between women and men, overwhelming women’s duty. That is why alternative strategies need to be applied in order to make a girl master of her future.

Notwithstanding the multiple critics, the urgency to empower young girls has been widely supported by key stakeholders within the International Development sector since the early 1990s. The World Bank, along with several UN agencies, developed multiple reports that addressed the need to promote gender equality to fight poverty by focusing on investments on girls. Using Lawrence Summers’ words as chief economist for the World Bank:

“The question is not whether countries can afford this investment, but whether countries can afford not to educate their girls”.

And this is exactly the message we have to welcome when we reflect on the meaning of “The Girl Effect”. More specifically, we have to be careful and separate the strategy used to deliver the message and the tactics developed to make it real. Although the line between the two might be blurred sometimes, in this case it is important that we do not judge the movement itself for its campaign. The aim of empowering girls in developing countries as a device to fight poverty is ambitious, but it does not come out of the blue. Many examples demonstrate that it is real, achievable and beneficial even if not at all easy.

Whether we are critical or not towards “The Girls effect” campaign, it is important not to confuse what is behind it, which is a long process of conscious female empowerment rather than victimisation of poor girls in developing countries.

– Carella, A. 2014. So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”.AID WATCH, [blog] January 4, 2011, Available at: http://aidwatchers.com/2011/01/so-now-we-have-to-save-ourselves-and-the-world-too-a-critique-of-%E2%80%9Cthe-girl-effect%E2%80%9D/ [Accessed: 3 Apr 2014].

– Koffman, O. 2012. Will the ‘girl effect’ really help to combat poverty?. The Guardian, 10 February 2012.

– The Girl Effect. 2014. Adolescent girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet. Find inspiration and tools to unleash the girl effect at girleffect.org. [online] Available at: http://www.girleffect.org/ [Accessed: 3 Apr 2014].

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