Turns Out, Girls and Women Aren’t the Answer

By Ana Morales, Philanthropist and Founding Member of Maverick Collective

Ana Morales is a member of Maverick Collective, an initiative of PSI. Maverick Collective members partner on PSI programs to tackle critical challenges faced by women and girls across the globe, developing innovative projects and game-changing interventions. Members work shoulder to shoulder with a global community to provide solutions that radically impact the lives of girls and women in underserved communities.

So, before anyone starts trolling me on Twitter, I am for empowered girls and women. In fact, I am investing in work to help young women break free from violence and unintended pregnancy in El Salvador, a country that has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America. Almost half of all girls in El Salvador have their first child before they turn 17 years old.

Here’s what I am against – the empowerment of girls and women to the exclusion of boys and men.

Maybe we needed for the rhetoric to get this far to move policy, hearts and minds in the right direction. I get that. But is the rest of the community being left out?

In our focus on girls and women, we forget that for large scale change to happen entire communities need to be involved, otherwise girls and women walk right back into the same systems they had before.

The irony is that I write this a month after the U.S. election, where the president-elect is infamous for his degradation of women, from name calling, to objectifying to sexual assault. We’ve moved from a nuanced discussion around intrinsic gender bias and equal pay to blatant, sophomoric and extremely harmful depictions of women as objects. Progress can be stalled, but won’t be stopped. As we start to have this conversation anew, let’s do so more inclusively.

In a study done by Care International they ask the question: “So how to engage men, who seem to have “so much to lose,” and such power to prevent women’s empowerment?” The key is to find a way to include boys and men in the process and in a manner where they feel that their power is not being taken away, where they are willing to share their power and they still have a say in their communities and families.

When people are excluded from the conversation, don’t have a seat at the table and are marginalized they feel rejected, disempowered, alienated and angry. Women know this experience all too well.

Tostan, an organization in West Africa working to empower communities based on respect for human rights, has learned something along the way about the power of inclusion. When they first started working in communities they wanted to teach women about their rights, but they quickly found that men started questioning their motives and were not happy being separated and left out. That is when they realized that to teach women about their rights, they had to start with their communities as a whole – and yes, to work directly with boys and men.

Their work has reduced violence and contributed to girls and women being viewed as much more equal in their communities. To date, more than 20,000 women have been elected into leadership positions in their communities; 7,000 communities across eight African countries have publicly declared their abandonment of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage.

As the team shared their initial program goals for the project I am working on as a member of Maverick Collective, I asked that the work target girls and women but include the whole community.

The project is designed to improve the lives of teenage mothers and fathers in La Libertad and San Salvador, El Salvador by giving them access to youth-friendly reproductive health services, ensuring quality care for newborns, promoting healthy conflict management, and engaging male partners as active caretakers. We’ll partner with local authorities, health providers, and community leaders to promote this approach. We’ll support staff who are working with women’s health programs in communities to identify teen mothers and fathers in need of support.

Kathy LeMay – a dear friend and someone I’d like to be when I grow up, said these very wise words to me: “If we are looking to create change from a grassroots level, it is going to take men, women, girls, boys, elderly, younger generations and everyone else in between to do so.”

I could not agree more with her, and working together to solve problems is something the world could certainly use more of right now.

Photo credit: PASMO/El Salvador