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Unlocking Girl Power: A partnership rooted in girl-led movements

Adolescents attending a group activity, part of the Tipping Point project, which addresses the drawbacks of child marriage as well as promoting gender-equitable behavior. Rangpur, Bangladesh, June 2019. (Photo: Tapash Paul/CARE)

Adolescents attending a group activity, part of the Tipping Point project, which addresses the drawbacks of child marriage as well as promoting gender-equitable behavior. Rangpur, Bangladesh, June 2019. (Photo: Tapash Paul/CARE)

Girls’ expertise in their own lives and their dynamic contributions are visibly absent from decision-making spaces that affect their lives and rights.

Whether it’s their parents deciding to stop their schooling without even consulting them or going to a health post that doesn’t know how to meet their needs as teenagers, girls and young women have a lot more to say than their families, their teachers, their brothers, and their leaders make space for. Their voices, choices, and leadership are blocked by deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms, like the control of adolescent sexuality, violence, mobility, access to technology, and limited or no access to knowledge and information on sexual and reproductive health. On top of these, age-related social norms related to puberty keep girls out of school on a monthly basis by shaming them into hiding the menstrual cycles that affect 50% of the human population, and adults assuming the need and right to be central decision-makers in girls’ lives drive practices like child, early and forced marriage and other rights violations. While the transition to adulthood is seen as an opportunity for increased freedom for so many adolescents around the world, girls often face increased restrictions that limit their life course, such as when they’re expected to follow the choices made by their parents about if, who, and when they marry.

Faced with these challenges, the EMPower – the Emerging Markets Foundation and CARE’s Tipping Point Initiative came together first to learn from EMpower’s experience developing the Adolescent Girls’ Learning Community model in India to understand the ways in which girls themselves were taking on these norms. The partnership grew to adapt the model in Nepal and Bangladesh during Tipping Point’s second phase, becoming a central strategy for challenging social expectations and repressive norms, and promoting movements and activism that are led by girls.

More from Tipping Point's group activity in Rangpur, Bangladesh. (Tapash Paul/CARE)

Learning Communities on the Move: a model for girl-led activism and norms shifting

The LCOM model aims for girls’ expertise and dynamic contributions to be respected and included in decision-making spaces that affect their lives and rights. The implementation of the LCOM activities over the recommended course of six months, at a minimum, to 18 months, at a maximum, supports girl-led programming and is thus applicable across sectors, from health to education to financial empowerment. It begins by training girls and their mentors on a simple process that helps girl activists voice their priorities and come together as a movement for advocating their rights. The girls decide what they wish to address and together use the LCOM toolkit to put it into action, monitor progress and evaluate their efforts. Girls in Nepal wanted to challenge the fact that they weren’t allowed to leave the house or walk around their own community without a chaperone, and girls in Bangladesh made it clear that their parents and community leaders making choices about their lives without them wasn’t okay. This toolkit also supports girls as researchers and hence the tools can guide them on the process to use their research findings for advocacy and influencing.

Children gather in the Sahel region in the West African country of Niger in September of 2018. (Josh Estey/CARE)

Unlocking power

Organizations of all shapes, sizes, and mandates promote “girl-led” programming, from the Girl Scouts in the United States to bi-lateral donors to researchers[1] to UN agencies – even in emergency settings. While a plethora of approaches and models are used to live into the values associated with girl-led programming, it’s harder to find programs that employ these models by exclusively elevating the self-proclaimed hopes and dreams of the girls and their allies without the burden of well-intended donor expectations.  Girls want to advocate for their rights? Great – but make sure we’re talking about girls’ right to education. Girls want to mobilize against violence? Perfect, but make sure we’re talking about child marriage, because Eve teasing and bullying aren’t as easily tied to nutrition-centered targets!

Collective action, led by girls and supported by their chosen allies, is a phenomenal support to many indicators of wellbeing. We know that when girls gain the skills, confidence, and connections to reach their goals, their education, health, relationships, and communities all get stronger. So why don’t we count that mobilization, those connections, that brave movement as impact?

Yes, this may require us to adapt how we measure our results, but shouldn’t the process of girls leading in their own lives be a success in and of itself?  Sure, we have a Sustainable Development Goal that very clearly states our desire to see the end of child marriage, but I’m betting that you – like me – want girls and women to do more than just make it to 18 years without marrying someone their father’s age without their consent.

[1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10130950.2021.1917209

March 4 Women 2019: Bonga girls, learning for change. Bushenyi, Uganda. (Photo: Tara Agaba/Care International Uganda)

With CARE and EMPower’s LCOM model, we’re seeking a world where people are more inclined to listen than direct and “do.” A world with a networked, resourced, and equipped generation of activists – particularly girls – that look to themselves, their peers, and their allies for their own priorities. And from these things, sustainable, youth-led norms shifting that ceases to rely solely on time-bound funding sources attached to donor-defined outcomes.

Want to learn more? Join CARE and EMPower to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022 to dig into the LCOM model, our lessons, and how you can take up this model yourself!  https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_BkmVYurpSZKkW1xDq7A9uw

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