When my husband Peter and I started our work leading the NoVo Foundation in 2006, we envisioned a mission that fosters a world based on collaboration and partnership, away from our current systems of domination and exploitation.
As we asked advocates around the world what it would take to create this shift in societies, we learned that girls are uniquely powerful and integral in that transformation. By any measure — health, education, economic — girls are suffering. Yet they hold enormous potential, as sisters, daughters, mothers, friends, economic drivers and community leaders. That’s the girl effect, and it inspired NoVo’s early choice to invest in girls living in poverty in the global South.
This week, Plan International’s Be Bold campaign is releasing Pathways to Power, their seventh report on the status of girls worldwide. The report’s framework for understanding how power shapes possibilities for girls deeply resonates with us.
Through our partners, we’ve seen how power is held over girls, through institutions, policies and social norms that limit their opportunities and fail their potential.
We’ve also seen what happens when girls hold power together, whether in a safe place in a slum in Kenya or in a collective, advocating for maternal health care, substance abuse prevention and curbing pollution in India. This collective power drives girl’s participation in taking their rightful place in societies and rallying the support of their communities.
Finally, we’ve seen what is most difficult to measure and most fundamental to change: the power a girl holds within herself. That power burns bright inamazingly brave girls as they challenge convention and open whole new horizons of change. In our current paradigm of hierarchy and violence, too many times we’ve seen that light go dark, in the lack of hope in a young girl’s eyes. It’s a devastating sight and stifles conditions for progress in any society.
While our investments in girls have mostly focused on the global South, girls in our own backyard have never been far from view. In a country as diverse as the United States, generalizations about girls are hard to draw. Race, immigration status, income level, geography, physical ability, sexual identity and orientation — all of these factors overlap and create unique, complex challenges.
The data reveals how this affects girls’ realities. One in five American children is born below the poverty line — for African-American, Latina and Native American children, that number is over one in three. That disproportionality follows girls as they grow into women. African-American girls are suspended from school, sent tofoster care and incarcerated at rates higher than other girls. Latina girls have the lowest four-year high-school graduation rates, and highest pregnancy rates. Native American girls are two and half times more likely to experience sexual assault.
Despite the enormous challenges girls face, I have also seen the potential girls have to create change here in the U.S. Earlier this year, I met an inspiring group of girls at PACE Center for Girls, an organization that supports the specific needs of girls at-risk or involved in the juvenile justice system in Florida. Many of the girls in PACE’s programs come from families living in poverty, have experienced sexual and domestic violence, and were struggling to complete school prior to coming to PACE; 67 percent of the girls PACE serves are girls of color. Despite these obstacles, I saw girls thriving, surrounded by a nurturing environment. Through trauma-informed counseling, mentorship, and building community with peers, these girls were able to come into their full being. Once at risk for becoming lost within the juvenile justice system, these girls were now planning to go to college, become business owners, and serve as leaders in their communities.
Even the systems around these girls have begun to recognize that investing in them is common sense: about 65 percent of PACE’s funding comes from the state of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice and local school districts. Florida sees the incredible impact of resourcing girls, rather than funneling them into a broken justice system and into further decline.
Around the world, innovative programs are supporting pathways to power that enable girls to truly thrive. How can we as a community leverage the learnings from these efforts to support girls everywhere? For example, The Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund has learned how to secure the rights of girls and their access to justice as victims of sexual assault in Zambia, Pakistan, and Brazil. How can we apply that to systems of education and social welfare in the U.S.?
We’ve learned how to provide economic assets to adolescent girls to reduce their vulnerability. The Landesa Girl’s Program in India helps girls claim their legal right to land and surrounding resources to secure their financial stability and place in society. In Liberia and Ethiopia, The International Rescue Committee’s Girl Empower program equips girls with skills to develop and access social capital, and gain financial literacy to stay safe from abuse and sexual exploitation. What would more investment in these kinds of programs look like in Detroit or the deep South?
Whether in India, Mississippi or Ethiopia: We believe every girl is born empowered and together, we need to dismantle the structures that prevent a girl from exercising her own power. We must work to ensure girls know their own value.
When girls live in their full power, they have enormous potential to lead change; for their own lives and their communities. Globally, we see these pockets of collective girl force, working together to change the tide for girls. These girls are claiming their own power and are ready to use it. How can these efforts grow faster, and together across the globe? The sooner we can connect our work for girls around the world, the richer and more impactful our work will become.