The Girl Effect

Alice Arkwright welcomes ‘girls’ education’ celebrity endorsements but highlights flaws in the campaign


“And for women and girls in developing countries, this is vital… Providing them with access to education is the key to economic and social development, because when girls are given the right tools to succeed, they can create incredible futures — not only for themselves but for all of those around them.”

Since around 2010, girls’ right to education has received unprecedented global attention. Not only has it become an increasingly visible area of international development, there has been a mainstreaming of the issue in wider public debate.

Many development organisations now have programmes specifically focused on the issue, for example Plan International’s Because I am a Girl campaign. Governments have also stepped up their investment; Let Girls Learn was launched in 2015 by Barack and Michelle Obama. Since 2012, we have celebrated International Day of the Girl every October and multiple celebrities and companies, such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, have endorsed campaigns on girls’ education. The quote above is from Meghan Markle at the end of 2018. She is the latest prominent figure to add their name to the issue.

The attention now given to girls’ education has occurred alongside the rising popularity of feminism in Western countries – Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 Lean In is one of the only books focusing on women’s rights to have reached international best seller lists; celebrities and politicians have proudly called themselves feminists wearing ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts, and multiple elements of pop culture now reference gender equality. Critiques of ‘popular feminism’ have been widely published in the wake of this.

The linear timeline of access to education to economic growth fails to connect with the realities of women’s lives. Inequalities which prevent women from succeeding in the labour market are all but ignored

The quote by Markle exemplifies some of the narratives that are being promoted around girls’ access to education in the Global South. The first being that a girl’s education will not only relieve her own poverty, but her family’s, community’s and nation’s. These ideas began to emerge in the 1990s as researchers, including Larry Summers, former World Bank Chief economist, produced work suggesting that girls’ education was correlated with higher access to employment and lower mortality rates. Girls’ education has also been framed as an essential input for national security in debates around the war on terror. Subsequently, slogans, such as ‘invest in a girl and she’ll do the rest’ have been used.

Whilst an inspiring and potentially simple solution to the crisis of extreme poverty, this linear timeline of access to education to economic growth fails to connect with the realities of women’s lives. Inequalities which prevent women from succeeding in the labour market are all but ignored; lack of safety in work environments, maternity policy and equal pay to name but a few. In the UK, where girls’ access to education is near universal, over half of all women have experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the workplace.

This logic also considers all girls to be the same when we know other aspects of identity, such as race, class, mental health and how these intersect with each other will influence experiences of education and employment.

As well as failing to link to wider societal factors, the current discussions ignore the processes of education. School-related gender-based violence has become a key area of development intervention in the past ten years, but as the issue has mainstreamed, discussions have focused on simply accessing education. This overlooks what occurs in the classroom and the ways in which school environments can act as a liberating environment, or can reinforce gender stereotypes and discrimination. All girls have a right to education, but for it to be transformative the content of education and how it connects with other inequalities need to be considered.

In failing to acknowledge how societal barriers and power structures influence people’s choices, the responsibility for educational achievement, empowerment and poverty alleviation falls on the individual. This shift of responsibility means governments and institutions are not held accountable for creating conditions that are harmful to women. Facebook supports campaigns for girls’ empowerment, whilst doing little to challenge widely known sexism in Silicon Valley. Larry Summers published work promoting the benefits of girls’ education, whilst supporting World Bank programmes which pushed for welfare reduction and cuts to state education expenditure in the Global South. ONE, an international development campaigning organisation, used the tag line ‘a seat at the table starts with a seat in the classroom’, whilst over 70% of its own Board of Directors are male.

Finally, focusing on the individual’s path to success or failure means people are not required to unlearn attitudes that have contributed to gender inequality in systems, structures and society.

Alice Arkwright

Alice Arkwright works for the TUC.