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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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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?

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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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Effort to Empower Mothers and Girls in Ghana

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The Fifth among the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

The government of Ghana joined an Advocacy Campaign on Girls’ Education and Maternal Health in Accra, which is the capital and largest city of Ghana. The campaign is part of a United Nations (UN) project aimed at raising the awareness of mothers’ mortality rate during pregnancy and delivery as well as girls’ access to education.

In the first part of the campaign, improving maternal health is one maternal health in Ghanaof the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are eight goals for international development. According to Girmay Haile, who is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Country Director, about 3,100 Ghanaian mothers (380 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) died during pregnancy and childbirth in 2013 due to postpartum haemorrhage, hypertensive disorders, and abortion sepsis (Graphic Online). Although the maternal mortality ratio in Ghana is decreasing annually, it remains a major issue because aforementioned causes of maternal death are preventable. Under the slogan of “No Woman Should Die Giving Life”, the government and organization officials have a plan to train maternal health service providers to facilitate skilled and safer delivery of babies. However, going beyond the role of conveying knowledge, the government, local communities, and external agencies have to consistently improve the healthcare system and expand benefits of medical treatments.

girls education in GhanaDuring the second part of the campaign, girls’ education is also included in the MDGs in that their education can promote gender equality. Rushnan Murtaza, who is the Deputy Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), focused on enhancement of the transition from primary to secondary education as well as on the increase of access to education (AllAfrica). Under the slogan of “Empowering Girls for a Stronger Ghana,” the government introduces girls to the stories of successful female athletes, organizes girls’ clubs that stress on the topic of teenage pregnancy, and provides girls with sanitary pads against social and physical barriers related to menstrual management. Through these activities, the implementors of the program are looking forward to inspiring girls to enroll and stay in school. The active participation of girls is important for their education. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge to continue girls’ education without the favorable atmosphere of society as a whole.

The Advocacy Campaign on Girls’ Education and Maternal Health seems to be a pivotal starting point for empowering women of Ghana. However, is the launch of the campaign sufficient enough to counter the ingrained factors that lead to maternal mortality and unsustainable girls’ education? In the initial stage of the project, the contributors and assistants should provide a more specific action guides combined with feasible plans that are suitable within the local context and not focus on immediate results solely for the attainment of the goal. Furthermore, teachers, parents, men, and the whole community should exert effort to support and encourage women altogether.

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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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