Author Archives: danibicknell

Girl Rising Documentary

Girl Rising is a global movement to help empower girls through education. In supporting their cause they created a documentary that aims to change the way girls in the world have been stigmatized.

Girl Rising journeys around the globe to witness the strength of the human spirit and the power of education to change the world. Viewers get to know nine unforgettable girls living in the developing world: ordinary girls who confront tremendous challenges and overcome nearly impossible odds to pursue their dreams. Prize-winning authors put the girls’ remarkable stories into words, and renowned actors give them voice. The power of story-telling really engages an audience that might be blind to the types of issues girls around the world face. You can view the documentary here, and you can also arrange to have a screening with friends. These stories are ones that need to be shared in order to have productive conversations about what action can be done to effectively empower the next generation of women.

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How Education Could Abolish “Virginity Tests” for Females Joining the Police Force in Indonesia

Frmale Indonesian police recruits stand in line

Female Indonesian police recruits.

Many sources are reporting outrage over Indonesia’s “Two Finger” test for women, who are required to prove they are virgins before joining the police force. The China Daily and The Singapore Straits Times have condemned these types of tests. This happened after Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published a report calling on Indonesia to end these invasive tests. Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director of the Asia Division, told msnbc. “Women have been too ashamed or traumatized to talk about it for decades.”

The test is considered a “health check.” A health official inserts two fingers to make sure the hymen of the female is still intact. Applicants have to strip down and submit to these tests without question.

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Police spokesman Ronny Sompie on the right, has spoken in defense of the “two finger” test.

Police spokesman Ronny Sompie said the “comprehensive health test” is for all applicants, in order to make sure candidates were free of sexually transmitted diseases. He said that a women who were not virgins could still apply. However, HRW said a post on the police website indicated that female applicants must be virgins. Currently, women make up about 3% of the 400,000 officers in the force and there have been talks to try and increase that percentage to 5% by the end of December.

Moreover, this test does not adequately determine whether a female is still a virgin. Women have torn their hymens for other reasons. Some have reported that hymens can tear from intense physical activity or even from riding a bicycle. Therefore, many women could be discredited without actually engaging in any sexual activity.

This issue appears to be a clash of cultures in trying to apply moral values that end up discriminating women and keep them out of the workforce. Augusto Lopez-Carlos Director of the Global Indicators and Analysis Department at the World Bank, spoke at the Penn International Development Conference about how discriminatory laws affect women. He stated that laws like this do inhibit women from entering the labor force, and inhibit growth and opportunity in many countries. It seems counter-intuitive that the government requires this test while also stating that they plan to increase female police applicants in order to better address femicide and sex crimes.

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Book entitled, “Reading Truth: Sex Education” written in Indonesian.

Education could bring awareness to the discriminatory nature of this test. Sex education could help dispel the myth that a woman is a virgin by using a “two-finger virginity test.” In addition, educators should teach both genders about separating sex from human capital. A female’s sexual activity is not tied to her capabilities as a police officer, as this test infers. If officials want to better address sex crimes, they need to reexamine how this test could prevent females from joining the force.

Last year, hundreds of students were trained by Planned Parenthood in Yogyakarta, a province with one of the country’s most progressive reproductive rights communities. These students called on the province officials to include sex education in school.

Andreas Nugahita, a student and workshop attendee stated,The more people understand, the more they can take responsibility for their own sexual behavior. That could change teenagers’ attitudes toward sex all across Indonesia.

However, considering the cultural context in Indonesia, changing legislation to abolish the virginity test or to include sex education could be difficult.We have this conservative point of view because, for generations, sex has been seen as a bad thing.” said Dyana Savina Hutadjulu, a program officer at Hivos, a global development agency helping to coordinate the effort.

Addressing the youth is important, but in order to abolish the “virginity test”, the Health Minister should take a stand as well. Dr. Nafsiah Mboi, a physician who promoted sex education outreach in the past, was appointed as Indonesia’s health minister in 2013. He has not commented yet, but if he did this could help, considering he is a doctor and has advocated for sexual health awareness. Hopefully, Dr. Mboi and others can add their input to hopefully put an end to this test and create better gender equity within Indonesia’s police force.


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The Girl Effect Accelerator: Changing the global agenda for girls in developing countries?

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Photo by D. Epstein, CEO of Unreasonable, a partner org. in the Girl Effect Accelerator.

The hope of making it big in business attracts many entrepreneurs to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The area is known for “disrupting” business and creating new products and services that challenge traditional frameworks. However, in the sea of this “disruption” there are few that focus on the most marginalized populations in the world: girls. One incubator program is addressing a global problem through the start-ups focusing on girls first. The Girl Effect accelerator aims to tackle these problems not through nonprofit philanthropy or government aid, but through social impact businesses. The Girl Effect Accelerator Program is supporting its first round of businesses with a two-week workshop that took place in early November. These new businesses address the most pertinent challenges girls and women face, such as healthcare, education, personal finance and safety. The program chose ten companies that specific focus on girls in developing countries.

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The first day of the two-week accelerator program, meeting and mentoring. Photo by D. Epstein.

So, what is an accelerator program? An “accelerator” is a program where participants apply and those who are accepted are able to start or expand their businesses. Once they join a cohort they are able receive mentorship from leaders and build their skill sets. On the last day, they get to pitch their idea or show a demo to investors. These programs have become popular for entrepreneurs since other companies like Airbnb and Dropbox have been incubator graduates and have succeeded later on. Most accelerator programs only focus on building enterprise. The Girl Effect program is a first to use accelerators for different purposes. The Girl Effect is backed by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group. They are sponsoring this not just because fighting poverty is the right thing to do, they see it as a business opportunity. As research continues to show, educating, supporting and protecting girls in the developing world can be a catalyst for creating economic growth and opportunity within developing communities.  Shaifali Puri, executive director of global innovation at the Nike Foundation, said at the opening remarks of the program, these entrepreneurs have made the impossible merely difficult.” 

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A father bringing his daughter to a Bridges school in Kenya.

One company in the Girl Effect program is specifically addressing education, is Bridges International. It is a for-profit school that costs students about $5 per month to attend. At first glance, their program is quite similar to what the Education for All Initiative (EFA), tries to achieve. EFA was first launched in 1990 by the World Bank. Upon inspection, it is hard to see how Bridges is addressing girls access to education. Furthermore,  how is their model different from EFA and other initiatives that take a top-down approach to education? Hopefully, the Girl Effect program will help them fine tune their approach to create inclusive education programs for girls.

It is inspiring to see programs like the Girl Effect are trying to take an innovative approach when tackling complex issues like girls living in poverty. In the past, this has been traditionally addressed by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and more recently Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These approaches were developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and their missions are to alleviate poverty through economic growth. These programs have been criticized in the past and might be able to reduce poverty for some, but they can also exacerbate inequalities for others. The Girls Effect shows promise to get things done faster, by working through the business lens, instead of aid organizations or local governments. However, there are several considerations that need to be addressed in order to distinguish these programs from the traditional approaches that have been previously implemented:

  • Beneficiary voice needs to be incorporated to find sustainable solutions.
  • Understanding and respecting cultural contexts should be taken into account.
  • Business is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. There needs to be collaboration from different sectors.
  • Development work already exists in many of the areas where these businesses are starting. Will these projects overlap with other initiatives in the area? Is there potential for partnership and will this be encouraged or as seen as competition?

These considerations are not easy to discuss, but as the Girl Effect scales, they will need to be addressed and incorporated into the program curriculum. Nevertheless, the Girl Effect is the first of it’s kind in the accelerator space to focus on girls in developing countries, so there is promise that other businesses might want to shift their focus on girls as well.

Entering this new space in social impact and business to address real-world problems with market solutions is a trend I like to see. Hopefully, with this new approach, these new businesses will better promote opportunities for girls within the communities they serve.  The answer of “how” this will be done is not clear yet, but the Girl Effect is off to a good start. Nevertheless, I believe we as global citizens are only as strong as our weakest link, so I encourage many different stakeholders and sectors to come together to change the future for girls in developing countries.

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The Girls of A-LIFE: Combating the Spread of Ebola and Empowering Females in Liberia

1625577_539515829483583_5777314568863772354_nIn West Africa, the spread of Ebola has reached epidemic proportions and scientists, doctors and governments are scrambling to try and reduce the spread of this deadly disease. However, many communities have not been educated about what they as citizens can do to help combat the disease, until now. In the West Point slum of Monrovia, Liberia, a girls group is knocking on doors and singing songs to alert residents about Ebola and how to prevent the spread of the disease. This simple act is empowering for these girls and could be life-saving for their community and country.

West Point, Liberia is one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the capital of Monrovia. Violence is rampant and lack of proper sanitation leaves the community at risk of contracting and spreading Ebola. Moreover, violence against women has put many girls and women in fear of going out in public, let alone becoming public figures. The girls of A-LIFE are combating that fear and stepping out to help educate their communities. A-LIFE stands for, Adolescents Leading an Intense Fight Against Ebola, and it was started in by UNICEF in 2012, initially to help teach girls about how to protect themselves against sexual violence. However, since Ebola is now a top concern within the country, the girls started learning about the disease and what they could do to protect themselves. Liberia has some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world. Empowering girls with educational tools is not only beneficial for their community, it could also help change the way girls are perceived in the country. There is poor sanitation within West Point and people are not accustomed to properly cleaning themselves. So, the girls of A-LIFE are going door to door, singing songs and alerting people to the spread of Ebola and providing information about how be more sanitary.  These girls are using their voice to connect with these citizens and make sure they know about the disease and what they can do to prevent it.

2024355403Recently, the World Health Organization reported that of the 10,141 cases and 4,922 deaths from Ebola so far, more than half are in Liberia. Initially, the government of Liberia was criticized for not handling the outbreak of Ebola within the country very well. There was a looting spree in one of the quarantine centers in Monrovia, and people stole blankets, mattresses and other things that could have been infected with the disease. The looters were reported screaming, there’s no ebola, after they ransacked the center, which caused many unaccounted people to flee while possibility contracting and spreading the disease. This threat of spreading Ebola made officials impulsive to do something quickly. The government responded with a military quarantine of West Point and had guards prevent anyone from leaving or entering. This resulted in violence and many argued that Liberia’s enforced quarantine was not helping reduce the spread of the disease. Only 10-days after the quarantine was initiated, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf lifted the quarantine in response to the clashes between the military and residents, and although people are allowed to move freely within West Point, there is still an enforced curfew from 9pm to 6am.

The distrust Liberians have in the government is what makes the girls of A-LIFE so powerful. They are members of the community, coming out and talking to their neighbors about the dangers of the disease. They are not armed and they use songs and posters to communicate with as many people as they can. They are using information in creative ways to bring public awareness about Ebola and showing skeptics in the community that Ebola is real.

“I feel good educating people about Ebola and helping them see how they can prevent themselves from getting it,” said Jessica Neufville, a 16-year old member of A-LIFE.

(A-LIFE) girls learn how to record survey data on their mobile phones as part of U-Report (UNICEF photo).

(A-LIFE) girls learn how to record survey data on their mobile phones as part of U-Report (UNICEF photo).

The girls have visited over 4,000 homes and they are seeing a change in the behavior in West Point due to their outreach. The government was not able to educate the people of West Point about the disease, so the girls used their voices to help their community understand what they could do to help themselves. It has been reported, that more people now have buckets outside of their homes to wash their hands. Although there is still much work to be done to eradicate Ebola, this grass-roots response from girls is inspiring and strengthens their image as leaders. Hopefully, this educational campaign will help change the way women are perceived within Liberia and help give these girls confidence to continue their work and become even more influential in their community and beyond.

For more information about the A-LIFE girls group in Liberia, you can go to the UNICEF facebook page to stay updated.

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Malala Yousafzai, Girls Education, and Bridging the Gap Between East-West Relations

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Female empowerment in education is a hot topic thanks to one brave young girl. However, media outlets are having a field-day trying to categorize what Malala stands for, instead of listening to what she is actually saying. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to bringing awareness to girls education within Pakistan. While most Western media outlets are championing Malala as an international leader, reports show that she is still ostracized in her own country of Pakistan. After she became an international icon for female education, the Taliban threatened to kill her.

Her courage for speaking out comes at a cost, but it is extremely admirable to see her continuing her work even when there appears to be danger for her in doing so. She encourages an open dialogue between the Taliban and the government to understand how to create equal access to education for women.

To put things in context, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for advocating girls’ rights to education. After that incident, her story got attention from the international community and she was moved to England for treatment. After her recovery she wrote a memoir, I am Malala, which became a best-seller in the U.S. and she became an international idol after becoming the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize. Critiques of Malala have characterized her as a “tool of the west” and some have even gone as far to say that her attack was planned in order for her to become a western hero fighting against orthodox jihad. The media plays an interesting role in discussing Malala and her passion for education. Both Western and Non-Western media outlets tend to put more emphasize on imposed opinion in their pieces, rather than focsuing about the important elements that Malala brings to the discussion about girls access to education. At a recent Conference in Philadelphia, I heard Malala speak about her experiences in Pakistan and in England and the United States. What stood out to me most is that she stated that she is a devote Muslim, loves her home country and this does not mean she cannot also advocate for girls education rights. She spoke beautifully about what being Muslim means to her, and dispels Western myths that Islam is against education and peace.

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Malala speaking at the Forbes 30 under 30 summit on 10/21/2014 in Philadelphia, PA.

“Extremists think girls education is not important, but Islam is not against education. That point needs to be clarified…The word Islam means peace. We all need to understand what the real Islam means.” (Yousafzai, 2014)

Malala was very blunt about the violence she saw in Pakistan before she was attacked, however, she was very explicit in not blaming her country, only those that attacked her. She was also enthusiastic, talking about the good that is coming out of Pakistan since her attack.

“In Pakistan there is a big change. Before, no one could come out and talk openly about the Taliban. After I was attacked, people that could not come out against the Taliban came out and said, I am Malala. Now people can speak freely about the Taliban when they couldn’t before.” (Yousafzai, 2014)

She was very diplomatic in talking about how the West can aid in this fight against terrorism. She stated that Western Powers, like the US, can play a role in bringing education to girls in Pakistan and in the rest of the world. In addition, she made a specific request to President Obama when she met him.

“I told President Obama, don’t send bombs, send books, send teachers….drones might kill terrorists but they don’t kill terrorism.” (Yousafzai, 2014)

While Western media sources praise Malala, and on the other side of the world they call out the West for turning this young girl into, “a tool of the west,” one thing is for sure. Malala is not only a champion for women’s rights, she could also be an indirect diplomat to bring peace between the East and West. She is a proud Pakistani and she dreams of going back to her home country, but recognizes the danger in doing so. She has called on the U.S. to stop their military intervention and since she is highly respected for her work in the West, the U.S. should heed her advice, in order to make her dream come true. I believe part of her strength is in her youth. As the youngest winner of the Nobel Prize, the 17 year-old is calling for peace in the name of education. As much as each side can try to demonize the other through various media outlets, there is no denying that Malala wants to go back home to Pakistan and also wants everyone to have the opportunity to go to school. If world powers could work together to make the dream of education and peace a reality, that would be news worth reporting about. Until then, I hope that Malala’s words are left unabridged so that everyone can truly understand what she is fighting for.

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Defining Femicide and its Implications in the Americas

Can legally defining crimes against women help deter violence against them? It might be a good start. Following in the footsteps of many other countries in the Americas, Colombia is taking steps to set guidelines to prosecute these types of homicides. In late September of 2014, members of congress proposed a bill to define femicide, which is the murder of a woman by a man based on her gender. Of the 637 women killed in Colombia so far in this year alone, 83 were considered femicides – government figures show.

To gain more attention to the issue, just last week, the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Tracey Robinson, unexpectedly came to Colombia to bring light to the issue that crimes committed against women continue to remain in exemption. Her visit came as a surprise but that was her intention.

“In an interview with El Pais newspaper, Robinson said the surprise visit was meant to be just that. “That was the point. Arrive without notice so that more than one person who wouldn’t dare to tell their case because they didn’t know how to do so could do so. This is the opportunity of the IACHR to know up close the situation of afro-colombian women and the LGBTI community,” Robinson told El Pais.”

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“No femicides. Women, do not let men kill us in the name of love.”

Femicide is a widespread problem in Latin America, and more than half the countries with the highest femicide rates are in the Americas. Crimes against women are pervasive and have not been well documented in the past, and this new classification hopes to draw more attention to this issue.

Within this issue lies the assumption that defining these crimes will bring awareness to the problem and bring justice to victims. These crimes have gone mostly unnoticed in the past which may be a reason why this new bill might deter potential criminals from committing these acts. Furthermore, The definition of femicide itself is relatively new, and has not been formally used in political discourse in the Americas until the past decade, which may be due to gender changes in the political landscape of not only Colombia, but other countries in Latin America as well.

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(Willis, 2011)

Female policy makers were behind the creation of the bill in Colombia, and this could be in part that women have risen to power in government in the Americas over the past 30 years. Their personal perspective draws attention to female issues policy that have not been addressed before, and  there is hope that they will create equity and empowerment for women in the legal system.

There is no definitive way to measure the power of a word, but it’s increased awareness might be a good start to deter femicides throughout the Americas. This push from the international community and from policy makers within countries is a step in trying to reduce crimes against women in general.

Since the bill to define femicide is being proposed by female policy makers, there is hope that crimes against women will hold more weight in the courts, and hopefully deter criminals from committing them. 

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