Category Archives: America

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.


Let the Girls Grow: Fighting Teen Pregnancy

Mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls are seen in a shop window at a shopping mall in Caracas

Have you ever seen a pregnant mannequin? If so, you must have seen it in the stores for expecting mothers. At a mall in Venezuela, mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls wearing school uniforms are being displayed. Shoppers who see the mannequins were shocked and as a result, a debate over sex education was provoked (Buenos Aires Herald). The mannequins were set up by two local charities for children with the intention to draw attention to the nation’s adolescent pregnancy rate. This idea was formulated because of the alarming statistics that one girl under the age of 18 is getting pregnant every three minutes and 23 percent of all births come from that age category in Venezuela (Latin Times); the phenomenon is one of the worst in South America. A shopper, Auriselvia Torrealba said “Yes, it’s disturbing to see such sight in a window. But it’s the truth. You see pregnant girls all the time on the streets. So this forces you to think about the problem, doesn’t it?” (New York Post) Although this issue is a subject of taboo in Venezuela, the campaign is playing the role of igniting awareness for the current status of girls.

Teen pregnancy has been a major issue in developing countries. Even it is a girls’ choice toforced marriage get pregnant, teen pregnancy can be detrimental for both the mother and the baby in terms of medical problems as well as mental health problems. In order to avoid the risks, many civil agencies or foundations insist that sex education needs to be improved and parents need to take the subject more seriously (Latin Times). Since sex education can provide the girls with information on various contraceptive measures and knowledge about the human body, the girls are given the opportunity to reduce the rate of pregnancy. Nevertheless, it cannot be a solution in the case of forced marriage. Teen pregnancy results to girls being deprived of not only the right to be healthy, but also the right to be educated. If they get married or give childbirth, they face difficulty in going back to school.

girls not bridesIn addition to improving the quality of sex education, society has to be equipped with the proper systems and networks to provide a safe environment for girls. The more important thing for the girls is the change in overall recognition toward girls/women through the cooperation of parents and communities. Girls are not a tool to help men vent their desires or a reproduction machine, but a being worth valued. If this view is not properly established, gender disparity in education can never be broken. Beyond Venezuela where the attention to girls’ pregnancy was ignited, we have to go the extra mile for all the girls who are suffering from early or forced marriage as well as teen pregnancy to stay healthy and stay in school.

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


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.


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.” 


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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Our Bodies Are Not Public Property

In a high density region of New York City, Shoshana B. Roberts, a 24-year-old unknown actress, walked around the city for 10 hours wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. A hidden camera was filming Roberts and the reactions of the people in her surroundings. During the ten hours, there were more than 100 instances of street verbal harassment as well as countless winks and whistles (The Washington Post). This filming was processed by Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment advocacy group.

Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence; domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual trafficking (read my fellow blogger iregreaves), femicides (read my fellow blogger danibicknell), and forced prostitution could also be regarded as gender-based violence. Street harassment is defined as unwelcome and unwanted attention of a sexual nature, objectifying and targeting women in particular. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women has experienced unwanted non-contact sexual experiences. Apparent physical actions can be dealt by law or regulations; however, ambiguous comments and actions such as leering, catcalling, and whistling are not dealt with. catcallThis might be because the unwelcome and unwanted attention is truly subjective, and the degree to experience harassment could only result to individual variability. For example, if a man says “Hey, you’re beautiful,” some women will take the comment in a complimentary manner while others will take it as a form of sexually assault and be offended. Due to the vague characteristic of perception, it is difficult to criminalize harassers and various behavior of harassment; moreover, victims have difficulty raising their voice about street harassment.

The impressive aspect of the video is the attire that Roberts wore. Rob Bliss, who filmed the video, said “we choose the type of clothes that women commonly wear because we don’t want people to say that she wore clothes which invited sexual harassment” (The Huffington Post Korea). I have been told by elders to wear clothes neatly and behave properly to not lure men and become a victim of sexual assault. Whenever I heard such statements and advice, it seemed as if sexual harassment was caused by women’s shortcomings or misjudgments. However, why do men give leering hellos and unpleasant compliments to women that pass by? Why do they pass the buck to how women dress and their behavior, and not take into consideration the form of attention they give to women?

streetharassmentAfter the video released by Roberts caused her to receive numerous rape threats, a fierce debate about the video was initiated. Nevertheless, the video brought forth an important topic that is a commonplace issue and is one that needs to be solved. This video could be a tool for helping women who are in the status of victims be liberated from becoming getting numb about their experience. I hope this effort would show how intimidating the men’s trivial behavior or comments are and bear fruit for women’s right to be safe.

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Plastic Surgery in Venezuela: Empowerment or Enslavement?


breast silicone implant

Silicone Breast Implant

As a woman and a Venezuelan this topic has always interested and concerned me. In the last twenty years, the plastic surgery industry in Venezuela has become one of the most profitable businesses in the country, and Venezuela ranks among the top 20 countries that perform plastic surgery. The majority of these surgeries are breast implants for women.

Women have become enslaved to the country’s cult to beauty. This cult to beauty has been exacerbated by the media, with a pressure to look a like a Barbie doll, with body proportions that are only possible (if even so) by undergoing plastic surgery. Huge breasts, tiny waists (removal of ribs are necessary for this), butt implants and nose jobs to make the noses look tiny. This pressure is summed up in the words of Venezuela’s “beauty guru” and the owner of the Miss Venezuela Emporium, Mr. Osmel Sousa who nonchalantly said: “when there is a defect, I correct it [with plastic surgery]… Internal beauty doesn’t exist. That is something that ugly women invented to justify themselves.”


Venezuela Mannequins with “Fake Boobs”


Mannequin production



In the last few years, even shop owners have started making mannequins that have fake breasts proportions, and their sales have increased since then.




fake breasts chavez

Mr. Chávez publicly condemned breast implant surgery

Plastic surgery is a phenomenon that influences women from all social sectors. Despite the high poverty rates in Venezuela, women from the lowest-income backgrounds undergo breast implant surgery. Former President Hugo Chávez, who died in March of 2013, publicly condemned plastic surgery, claiming it was “monstrous” that poor women would be spending money on breast surgery when they struggled to make it to the end of the month. Certainly the plastic surgery industry goes very much against the socialist ideals that Mr. Chávez endorsed of a society free of commercialism and consumerism, and he condemned it as a “mark of capitalist propaganda.”


"I'm saving up to have the other one done."Earlier this month, the annual “Miss Venezuela” contest took place, and girls from across the different states participated in the most-watched TV show of the year. The next day, the winner and the runner up spoke in a press conference about their plastic surgery: “I got my boobs done because I had to fill my bust… I’m not against surgery, I’m in favor of science and plastic surgery is a science.”

2014 Miss Venezuela with Runner-Ups

2014 Miss Venezuela with Runner-Ups

“I got a nose job…the important thing is that you’re happy with whatever you got done, and I love my nose, despite what they say…” Reading their declarations ignited my desire to write a post regarding this hot topic. Also, the shortage of breast silicone implants hit the news a month ago, emphasizing the importance placed by Venezuelans on the topic of breast implants.

I am very concerned about the obsession with breast implants that has taken over the country. When one of my friends said to me once, “getting a boob job empowers me,” I was perplexed and asked her why. She replied that it made her feel more beautiful, more desirable (to men) and that it boosted her self-esteem. I have given a lot of thought to her remarks along with many of my girlfriends’ who have undergone plastic surgery and express similar thoughts. In a free, democratic society everyone has the choice to do as they please, and if having bigger breasts make women feel better about themselves then why shouldn’t they get them?


However, I am digging deeper into this issue and find a truly worrisome problem ingrained in our cognitive social conscience. Why should our self-esteem as women be based on the size of our breasts? Why has our society given so much value to our outward appearance to the extent of sacrificing our health and even endangering our lives? Why have we succumbed to this objectification of our body parts? To me, this obsession with plastic surgery shows a severe crisis of values in our country, and it is a mark of the profound and overly plastic, materialistic society we have become. It is truly alarming how much of a role the media plays in shaping our identities as women and setting the parameters of what is and isn’t considered beautiful.

In class we have been studying the different theories and perspectives on development discourse. Is expanding people’s choices critical to development? According to Amartya Sen, development as freedom means expansion of choices, so then perhaps under this light, the choice to get breast implants can be seen as a form of freedom. If it makes women feel empowered, then more so. But when it comes to choices, we need to think of priorities and values, and dig deeper into their meanings. Can we objectively say these are “choices” that empower us and give us “freedom” when they appear to actually make us slaves to a standard of beauty set by a group of people?


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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.”


“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.

FullSizeRender (1)

(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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