The Girl Effect is one of the most powerful demonstrations of backing up stories with data that I’ve seen over the last few years. Designed with solid data from global and national studies and confirmed by the real voices of adolescent girls, the Girl Effect is a model for other movements seeking to achieve social change. Below are three main reasons why I think the Girl Effect movement has been so effective, and what lessons we can learn and apply to other movements such as ending modern slavery (in a follow-up post soon).
1. The Girl Effect is designed by and for its target population – adolescent girls in developing countries.
Many nonprofits, especially those that are faith-based, often try to be a "voice for the voiceless" rather than to amplify the voices of the very people they are trying to help. The Girl Effect turns this model on its head: it directly connects with adolescent girls around the world to ask them about their main challenges, needs, and dreams and then – this is the key – asks them how they would address these issues. These girls are the subject matter experts and often the most innovative problem-solvers, but simply need access to funding, mentorship, and broader markets to scale. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn asserted in their best-selling book Half the Sky, the Girl Effect believes that women and girls are not the problem; they are the solution.
The most concrete example of how the Girl Effect approaches this important work is the Girl Declaration, a (wo)manifesto of sorts that culls the collective challenges and dreams of girls in developing countries around the world. The Girl Declaration is written by three adolescent girls and focuses on three main issues: Hannatu, a 12-year-old girl in Nigeria, shares about education and health; Joanna, a young woman in Liberia, addresses economic security and empowerment; and Andressa, a 16-year-old in Brazil, wants to ensure girls’ safety from violence, especially sexual violence. In total, 508 girls were consulted to provide input and feedback on the Girl Declaration. You can hear these girls’ stories in their own voices on the website here.
2. The Girl Effect’s mission aligns not only with social change and international development goals, but also with economic and political interests.
It’s difficult to be against the mission of the Girl Effect: to equip and empower girls to become problem-solvers rather than treated as problems. While some people due to religion or culture may be less enthused about promoting girls’ education, reproductive health, and economic opportunities, most people around the world believe in the mission of the Girl Effect and other organizations seeking to empower girls. International development organizations such as the World Bank and USAID support the Girl Declaration, as well as countless notable signatories and private sector actors.
But the Girl Effect doesn't generate support only from do-gooders like the United Nations. It makes the compelling, data-driven case that investing in the education, health, and rights of women and girls makes sense economically and financially. Check out these sample figures :
- In India, adolescent pregnancy results in nearly $10 billion in lost potential income.
- In Uganda, 85% of girls leave school early, resulting in $10 billion in lost potential earnings.
- By delaying child marriage and early birth for one million girls, Bangladesh could potentially add $69 billion to the national income over these girls' lifetimes.
You can learn more facts in this helpful slide deck that the Girl Effect prepared.
3. The Girl Effect strategically communicates complex information in compelling, non-controversial ways.
The Girl Effect successfully rallies people to awareness and action about issues affecting women and girls worldwide because they boil these issues down to their simplest, most digestible messages. As Kavita Ramdas brilliantly summarized in her article "What's Sex Got to Do with It?" in the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last summer, “Girls are hot. Reproductive rights are not.” When the original Girl Effect videos debuted, the iconic representation of girls in the development world was a 12-year-old orange stick figure with pigtails. She was cartoonish (literally) and innocent. Who would be against educating this little girl? After all, girls’ education is the magic bullet to end child marriage or sex trafficking or HIV/AIDS or any other injustice girls and women disproportionately face in the developing world. Right?
There is nothing wrong with the rhetoric and messaging of the Girl Effect and similar efforts. Ramdas and I both agree that education is a key lever to empowering women and girls. But there is an unspoken, underlying, and for some, unsettling reality: girls eventually become women. Compared to girls, women are seen as the harder “sell” because, well, women have women’s bodies. And having a woman’s body means many other complex, seemingly controversial things: reproductive health and rights, menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, sexuality, etc.
Talking about the rights, education, and health of women is much messier than talking about it for girls. Think about the choice to use the term “adolescent girls” rather than “young women” or “teen girls.” It's strategic and effective: the ideas and emotions evoked hearing a story about an adolescent girl being trafficked for sexual exploitation is somehow different than hearing about it for a young woman – even if they are both 13-years-old, and even though I don't think it should be. This is the point that Ramdas drills down on in her analysis: “There is nothing threatening or unsettling about a cute little girl. We don’t see a young woman in all her sexual complexity--her power, her attractiveness, her vulnerability, her mystery, her desire to attract and influence others, her need to be loved, recognized, valued.” A girl is simple; a woman is complex. When we’re trying to “sell” a global movement related to social justice, simple wins every time – at least in the short-run.
I support the Girl Effect because it is strategic, effective, and needed to disrupt the system that treats girls as less than, and gives them the tools to create the life they want for themselves. This is what my parents wanted for me and my sister, and for my brothers, as well. This is what I want for my own life. And this is what, one day potentially, I will want for my daughter.
So what are you waiting for? If you support educating and empowering girls around the world to reach their potential (and I hope you do!), then check out the Girl Effect and sign onto the Girl Declaration. You can join other notable signatories such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, Barbara Bush, Muhammad Yunus, Oprah Winfrey, Somaly Mam, and more.
Support the Girl Declaration here and follow the #GirlDeclaration for today's International Day of the Girl.
All images courtesy of the Girl Effect.
 The Girl Effect, "Why Girls?"