Girls know what their challenges are and how to solve them – part of what we need to do is listen better
Jessica Posner Odede
As I reflect on the strides taken towards the development of adolescent girls worldwide, I feel hopeful about the future. Dialogue led by a younger generation is busting barriers and creating new possibilities.
With 20% of the world’s adolescent girls living in India, the country at the forefront of this movement with opportunities created by the sheer speed and scale of the adoption of mobile technologies. This scale of technological adoption, a very palpable spirit of entrepreneurship, and the vibrant feminist discourse are some of the reasons why Girl Effect believes that India will be a driver of seismic change over the long term—and why we are excited to become a part of this shift.
This International Day of the Girl, it is important to celebrate the strides we have made, but also ensure that we do not forget the progress that is still necessary. Deeply entrenched societal norms across communities in India and beyond still prioritise marriage, family and upkeep of a home for a young girl over her ambition, agency and sometimes even her education. These barriers are further heightened by the cultural taboos and stigma attached to a girls’ sexual and reproductive health; leading to a generation of girls that do not fully understand their bodies, lack the agency to access health services, or the empowerment to make choices for themselves.
One long term trend exposing the impact of gendered stigma is the continued drop in female participation in the workforce; more than a third of women and girls participated in India’s workforce three years ago, but it has fallen to just 23.3% in 2017-18 . Not only would 1 increasing womens’ workforce participation in India by 10% add $700 billion to India’s GDP by 2025 , it is an effective way to address negative societal norms facing girls and women. 2 Working women are more likely to have a say in their household and in the use of their earnings. Significantly, employment has an intergenerational impact – when women have more control over resources, it leads to better health and education outcomes for their children too.
While the case for improving girls’ lives in India is clear, it is also essential to identify new ways of delivering this change, reaching girls where they are and innovating to pioneer new approaches than the incremental change of the past. Mobile technology provides an opportunity to leapfrog over solutions like building a school or clinic one by one; instead bringing life-changing information and access directly into the hands of a girl. We will never be
1 “50% India’s Population out of Labour Force”, Economic Times, Feb 2019 2 “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in India”, McKinsey & Company, Nov 2015
able to build enough infrastructure for every deserving girl; but what if a mobile phone could empower her to seek those opportunities for herself.
India‘s digital market is one of the largest and fastest-growing in the world. Earlier this year a McKinsey report told us that India has more than half a billion internet subscribers. A Girl 3 Effect and Vodafone Foundation global study into adolescent girls and mobile technology 4 found, unsurprisingly, that in India, the digital gender divide is a reality with ownership of mobile phones being 1.5x lower for girls than boys of the same age. However unprecedented numbers of girls also told us they are finding ways to access phones and digital content, with 73% of girls in India saying they borrow phones from their parents, friends or family members.
For an organisation like Girl Effect that is trying to reach adolescent girls and create transformational change in their lives at scale, these statistics about digital access are critical. And so when designing our latest youth brand for girls, Chhaa Jaa (छा जा), we did so using digital and mobile technology as the channel, developing entertaining and informative storylines that reflect the choices girls face as they navigate adolescence. I truly believe that girls know what their challenges are and how to solve them – part of what we need to do is listen better, and Chhaa Jaa is designed with this core principle in mind. Truly listening to girls has paid rich dividends, seen in the authenticity, realism, language and even situations showcased across our content.
I have worked all over the world as a social entrepreneur and especially in Kenya, where I co-founded Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), an organization catalyzing systemic transformation in urban slums. Together with Kennedy, my partner and husband, we built the organization to over 600 employees, 9 geographies, and over 250,000 people benefitting from life changing services. But from this experience I know that supply of vital services is just one part of the puzzle. On the one hand, significant investments have been made by governments and the private and public ecosystems that support them, on education, health and employment schemes, provisions and last-mile services. Initiatives such as P&Gs Parivartan – The Whisper School Program, Indians Govts’ SABLA, Deloitte’s WorldClass Skilling Program and Skill India are just some examples of this in India.
Yet often, not enough attention is focused on understanding the societal barriers that can get in the way of people accessing these services and the drivers to encourage that action. At Girl Effect, we believe that by generating this demand and a long-term need for these services in the minds of the girls and their communities, they would be far better utilised and the impact transformational. Without this, investments in building and maintaining supply-side services can only go so far. I know this from building SHOFCO, and I know this to be true of the Indian context.
3 “Digital India: Technology to transform a connected nation”, McKinsey Global Institute, Mar 2019 4 “Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected”, Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation, Oct 2018
To really make a difference, more and more girls need to actively seek out services and use them to improve their lives – be it a service to learn entrepreneurship skills, visits to health clinics or using contraceptives. The movement to create this demand has already begun but has a long way to go. And Girl Effect wants to help tilt the scales towards demand generation and partner with as many organisations, foundations, trusts and the government to design this in the right way. Helping girls make these positive choices is what catalyzes large scale transformation, unlocking the value of the investment in these services!
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.