Defending ourselves: defining the rights of girls

Exploited in the media, sanctioned by the state, and controlled by religious fundamentalism, decisions about the bodies of young women and girls seem to be everyone's business but their own.

Deepa Ranganathan Ruby Johnson
19 October 2015

Every ten minutes somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence. One in four young women alive today was married in childhood. Girls are born with dignity, but stripped away of it as they grow up and face a deeply prejudiced and patriarchal world. Exploited in the media, sanctioned by the state, and controlled by religious fundamentalism, decisions about the bodies of young women and girls seems to be everyone's business but their own.

Shazia Usman, a young Pacific feminist says, "Girls need to know that their body is beautiful, no matter the shape, size and colour. They need to see themselves, their authentic selves, in the mass media, in pop culture. They need to know they can be leaders from the moment they are born.”

Girlhood is an age of asking countless questions and the beginning of much learning and unlearning. It is an age when girls are willing to push boundaries and awaken their activist spirit, forcing us to reflect on our social movements and our efforts for change. This is a great gift to the feminist movement, and we need to ensure that we create space for this much-needed critique and powerful intergenerational exchange.

Young feminists in action

Fe-Male, a group of young feminist activists based in Beirut, is using digital and artistic media to generate awareness on gender issues. From directing documentaries, conducting radio shows to using social media and graffiti art to spread powerful messages, Fe-Male sees a "big need to work on empowering young girls and building their capacities in order for them to become leaders in facing the unfairness, discrimination and lack of respect for women in our society." They have recently launched a campaign against objectification of women in public advertisements in Lebanese media: #NotAnObject.

Fe-male pose before beginning their graffiti work to end objectification of women in Lebanese ads. Photo: Fe-Male, Lebanon

Groups like Fe-Male can be found all over the world, creating an inspiring and parallel reality where young girls are finding their own power and feminism, backed up by more young celebrities, public figures, peers and friends openly reclaiming the label of being a feminist and understanding the importance of the fight for gender equality. As Foundation for Civic Education and Social Empowerment (FOCESE) in Malawi explains, "Girls issues are not taken seriously in our area, and so many of them are often misreported or under-represented. Rape and defilement crimes are often held by village heads without being reported to the police for proper action. Our feminism plays a major role in exposing issues that would otherwise be ignored, empowering girls to understand their bodies, defend themselves and speak out against injustice against them so as to create a society free of gender based violence." This is the reality where FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund lives, where young women and girl-led groups are taking matters into their own hands.

Despite the limitations and control girls experience in many spheres of their lives, they are speaking up against injustices everywhere. Thirteen-year-old Hadiqa Bashir, is the youngest recipient of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for her work to end child marriage in Pakistan going door-to-door in her community, calling for families to end child marriage so girls can complete their education. As the chairperson of Girls United for Human Rights, she is leading the call for a new child marriage bill, in which the legal age of marriage for a girl is raised to 18 and the fines and imprisonment for violators increased.

As an organization working with young women and girls, we should encourage girl-led solutions to change and support them to access financial and non-financial resources and secure safe spaces for their work. This means including them in design of programs, ensuring they have a say in policy making and funding decisions, and giving them space to speak not only at moments of spotlight but also in community council meetings, within their living rooms and at school. Young women organisers have a key role to play in facilitating closer connection to older generations, providing a bridge during their own transition from ‘young’ to ‘not so young.’

Breaking new ground

Young girls are increasingly coming up with newer, more innovative solutions to dismantle patriarchy in their societies. Diverse approaches include the use of creative tactics such as self-defense, art, drama, filmmaking and technology.

Red Brigade Lucknow in India was formed by survivors of sexual violence, and the group's mission is to achieve women's protection from gender-based violence and street harassment. The Red Brigade learnt self-defence and is aiming to train one million girls in self-defence techniques under the slogan Mission One Million.

red brigade.jpg

A Red Brigade self-defence workshop with rural girls in Lucknow. Photo: Red Brigade

Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), an NGO based in New Delhi, is using technology in creative ways for social change, recently launching its #TodoBandishein (#BreakingBarriers) campaign that highlights the pressure to get married at an early age through the medium of a documentary film produced by young girls. The girls learned how to shoot, film and edit, and screened their movie in front of a large audience in Delhi. Recently some girls from India were invited to San Francisco at Technovation World Pitch Challenge to present an app that they have built to encourage recycling, and to help fight disease.

In California, The Radical Brownies, a social justice-oriented version of the Girl Scouts, was recently set up to “empower young girls of colour to step into their collective power, brilliance and leadership to make the world a more radical place”. This new wave of Brownie girls are learning about social justice instead of sewing, empowering young girls marginalised by the mainstream. Young girls are fighting sexualization of their bodies and unfair dress codes being imposed in classrooms in South Carolina by making #NotADistraction go viral on Instagram.

Too young to know anything?

In our experience of working with young women and girls, some of the biggest barriers to their work and activism stem from not being taken seriously, whether in their community, family, movement, government; the increased security risks and danger they face from their work - whether by local police, their own families or non state actors; and the lack of resources for their work. More than half of all the funding applications received by us at FRIDA in the past three years were from groups who had never received funding before.

Age discrimination against girls in organizations and movements is a major barrier. Daria, 17, from the group Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan explains, "As we are young teenagers there are not many adults who treat us as equal partners, friends or colleagues. The stereotype says that teenagers cannot take the responsibility for themselves, they are inexperienced and “they haven’t even seen the real life” - but there are thousands of children in Kyrgyzstan who faced violence, cruelty and know a lot more than others. At international and national conferences girls rights are being discussed by everyone, but not by girls.”

In addition to these intergenerational tensions, girl-led groups are often unable to directly receive resources for their work. Daria adds, “Because of our age we cannot register our initiative officially. We have to be dependent on law, government or other big people. That’s why we have to take parental consent every time to participate in our events, to plan and discuss, despite of the fact that some of us do not have parents."

Reflecting on this as funders we need to be wary of the tendency to take an instrumentalist approach communities, and push ourselves to be more accessible to support girl-led activism and ensure their meaningful participation.

What the future holds

International Day of the Girl this year focused on ‘The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030’, recognising the achievements over the years with the inclusion of girls on the global agenda, and in global funding priorities. Any hope of a gender-just world is based on using holistic solutions that pull levers of systemic power to change the realities of girls (and for that matter, boys and trans*children). Ensuring that girl led projects and organisations are at the heart of driving change is vital.

Young Feminist Organization in the Philippines taking action on climate justice. Photo: Young Feminist Organization

Girls need to hold their governments, NGOs and Foundations (like FRIDA) accountable to their commitments of investing in them. For funders this means giving up some of their power, working from a place of trust, embracing a spirit of risk-taking, and remembering that we all need space to make mistakes and learn from them. Girls will need to be involved in decision-making about funding programs so that they are provided with flexible resources that enable them to decide how best to implement their activities and grow their own collectives.

After all, true change in a complex world of unequal power structures happens only when women and girls both individually and collectively develop their knowledge, take action, claim their rights and push for equality. As funders, activists, development practitioners and as people, let us be open to a healthy space for dialogue, reflect on our own practice, and trust girls in changing the narrative.

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