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The Girl Effect II

Thursday, November 18, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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First grade schoolgirl at a tent school in Lal district, Afghanistan

There is so much that could be said about The Girl Effect.

Change the lives of girls and we can change the world: It’s a powerfully simple message but it contains it’s own richness and complexity.

Over the past two days I’ve really enjoyed reading so many different takes on the subject by more than 40 writers, and I’ve been inspired to write a little more about ‘the girl effect’ and how I’ve seen it work in practice.

Partly, I wanted to respond to this fantastic question from Carol:

“How is the cultural aspect/conflict reconciled? In the sense that a particular culture (or maybe just that particular childs family dynamics) may demand that the young girl marry and have children by a certain age. How does one seek to reconcile the desire to educate young girls with the demands that are placed upon her by external factors?”

I think this is a wonderful, insightful question because what if communities don’t want to educate their daughters? What if the very idea of giving girls the power to make their own decisions about when they marry and have children is in direct opposition to community and cultural values?

What if they don’t want The Girl Effect?

Carol has tapped into one of the central and recurring questions of my career as a human rights advocate. Are we just imposing these human rights values from the outside? Is this just my idea of what is best? What if these ideas are unwelcome?

Which is why I got really, really interested in community-based research on human rights. I wanted to know, as far as it is possible to know, what people in the communities I was going to be working with actually think about human rights.

Which, in turn, is why I went to Afghanistan, initially, to work with the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC). HRRAC was committed to bringing the views and voices of ‘ordinary’ Afghans to the attention of the people in Kabul who were making big decisions about the future of the country.

When I arrived in Kabul, in late 2005, HRRAC had just published ‘Speaking Out’, in which they reported on the findings of a massive community-based research project.*

In 2003, a survey of 1500 Afghans identified access to education and health as the second most important human rights, after the right to security.

But how did they feel about education for their daughters? Well, there were a wide range of different views expressed ranging from a father frustrated that there was no suitable school for his daughters toattend, to parents who couldn’t afford to educate all their children and chose to educate their sons first.

“I will finish school at 4th grade because my parents told me that then I will be too old to go to school.” Girl, aged 10, in grade 2 in a village in Kabul Province

“The next higher school is at the district center, about 4 km away. Our girls will not be allowed to go to a higher school because it is too dangerous for young girls to walk this distance. Our sons will go but our girls will not.” Father, Badghis Province

“School is expensive. I will send my boys first. When I can afford to send my girls I will.” Father, Kabul City

“Last year I had around 65 girls in 1st class. It was very difficult for me to ensure that all girls are learning.“ Teacher, village in Kabul Province

“I do not want my daughter to travel far from home.” Father, Badghis Province.

Three years after this survey was carried out I ended up working in Badghis province, as it happens. There I met many girls, and their parents, and heard an increasing call for appropriate, accessible education opportunities for girls.

Most parents I met were more than willing to have their daughter educated if: she didn’t have to travel long distances in unsafe territory to get to school; the cost of education was within the family means; and the teachers were well-trained.

As far as I understood it, it wasn’t that ‘not educating girls’ was a deeply held cultural value, it was that there were more social, economic and environmental barriers between a girl and her education than there were between a boy and his education. Remove or reduce those barriers and many parent would be thrilled to educate their daughters.

Which brings me to the next layer of complexity embedded in The Girl Effect:

it takes much more than the money for school fees to give a girl access to a good education

And that, my friends, is what I’ll be writing about tomorrow. In the meantime, let me know what you think about Carol’s question and my response. ‘Cause it’s not a conversation if I’m the only one doing the talking…

*The survey was conducted from April to June 2003. In total 1,479 Afghans participated in this survey from eight locations across the country. Of these, 1104 people were individually interviewed using a questionnaire and a further 375 participated in group discussions.

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12 Responses to "The Girl Effect II"

  1. Jody says:

    “Are we just imposing these human rights values from the outside? Is this just my idea of what is best? What if these ideas are unwelcome?”

    Those are such great questions. “We” don’t always know what’s best.

    I agree that there are other barriers to educating their daughters, that parents feel and those must be overcome.

    A basic one I struggle with though, it how others don’t in the least believe girls are equal to boys. It is so deep-seated in so many cultures that they are not…. one I live in for sure.

    Or really, that we are all equal to one another. I see day in, day out, how people do not believe this at all. It might be more subtle in some parts of the world, but in so many others all of society is based on this notion of an ‘order’ of value or importance.

    Most of the time I can’t wrap my head around it… I look forward to your post tomorrow.

  2. Bridget says:

    Reading posts and viewing the girl effect movie, I had the same question, where does culture play its role?
    I appreciate your personal experience. There is so much that goes into whether girls can go to school: safety, expense, politics, culture.

  3. Laura says:

    It’s a great post Marianna and frankly just makes me want to get out from my desk and get into the ‘field’ a bit more 🙂 Don’t have time to write more but thanks for sharing your very important perspective!

  4. Carol says:

    Another reason that I love this and how the topic has fleshed out is because perceptions are being challenged. The vast majority of individuals in developed countries have received streamlined and biased interpretations of all manner of subjects via mainstream media. A truthful reflection has to be discovered elsewhere via alternative sources, or better still, in the flesh.

    I think many of us failed to realize that men too were victims of the Taliban, having to adhere to a lifestyle that many probably did not agree with, but feared to challenge because of the risk to human life.

    So it warms my spirit in so many ways to see the evidence here that the support for female education doesn’t just within the female population of Afghanistan, but also the male 🙂

  5. Carol says:

    doesn’t just *exist* within

    Don’t ya hate typos 🙂

  6. Emmanuelle says:

    Hi Marianne, I have to run (literally), but I can squeeze in a couple words : indeed we, in so-called developed countries, tend to believe that we own the truth, that we know what to do. Truth is, we don’t. I don’t.
    I’m thinking here about the guest post you wrote on volunteering. That’s where shutting up and listening to the communities involved is so important, grassroot initiatives are so important.
    Would love to develop more, I’ll keep cheking on the discussion and comments 🙂

  7. Roxanne says:

    Marianne, I jumped when I saw that you were writing about this. Living and working in the Middle East, I wrestle with this question every day. You make a fantastically compelling case for why opposition to educating women is often opposition to parameters other than the education itself (traveling far to go to school, for example). But what happens in cultures when women’s empowerment at large runs contrary to the principles of a religion or a community? It has been my experience that working to strengthen women is only successful if men are partners in this endeavor. How does one navigate this kind of work in areas where men/society/even some women disagree with our conception of “The girl effect”, “empowerment” or education?

    Thank you once again for bringing up the topic and writing about it so thoughtfully. I very much look forward to your posts and am learning a lot from your experiences.

  8. Lianne says:

    My response to Carol’s question, “How is the cultural aspect/conflict reconciled? In the sense that a particular culture (or maybe just that particular childs family dynamics) may demand that the young girl marry and have children by a certain age.”

    I think our desire to be culturally sensitive is admirable.

    And my heart’s allegiance always naturally falls to the child’s innate desire for self-actualization.

    Even in Canada, I have worked with girls whose mothers wanted them to drop out of school to look after younger children and the daughter felt it was her duty to do so even as her deep desire was to graduate. My love of the child trumps the family or culture or religion.

    We can be sensitive in how we move forward and honour the child. Behind the demands of the family or culture is often a need that is competing with their own desires to see their child blossom. We can be sensitive to and acknowledge and address those needs in the process of advocating for the child.

    I’ve discovered in my experience that the most beautiful, gentle and immense power comes when I move from love and not self-righteousness.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thank you so much for all your comments. I’m feeling nourished, energised and re-motivated by our discussion.

      I’m especially grateful to you, Lianne, for saying so beautifully something that sits right in the centre of my heart. The most gentle and yet immense power comes when I move from love and not [insert my own shadows: guilt, shame, self-righteousness, fear etc]

  9. I am so enlivened by the conversation and discussion sparked by the girl effect. I was overwhelmed by the emotion of writing my one simple post… and am looking forward to reconnecting with everyone tomorrow.

    THANK YOU for your clear, powerful, experienced-in-this-world voice.

    Grateful, grateful, grateful.

  10. Same, Same says:

    […] of these passages is in a post by Marianne Elliot, her second Girl Effect post. In this post, Marianne turns to look at this question from a fellow blogger, Carol: “How is the cultural […]

  11. […] lovely Tara Sophia Mohr to write about The Girl Effect. You can read my three previous posts here, here and […]

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