If you’re like me, and have spent the last decade working in international development, then you have heard it all before; repeatedly, consistently, with exclamation marks: “When you empower girls, you empower the whole nation!” “Investing in girls is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do!” “Investing in girls is a way to invest in a better world!” “Girls are the key to ending poverty!”
Long story short, many of us have bought into this very narrative. With good intentions, we have been trying to do right by girls over the last several years. Governments have made clear commitments to women and girls, rallying behind Sustainable Development Goal 5, to achieve gender equality; donors have been backing this effort with significant resources; NGOs and civil society organisations have been implementing more and more girl empowerment programs.
Has the problem solved then? Are girls actually accessing the girl-focused services that were provided by the international development actors? Have the specific barriers to girls having the same opportunities as boys in many contexts been removed? Doubtful. Research has shown that many investments, such as in girls’ education, have displayed a clear pattern of losing focus on marginalised girls, and failed to take off and scale up, leading to disappointing results. There has been lots of activity within small and fragmented programmes, old solutions that don’t break through, as well as slow and incremental change that is not commensurate with the challenge.
Most of the time, the problem is the lack of expertise or resources among development practitioners to reach out to those who are most in need. Often it also comes down to the difficulties with implementing girl programmes in challenging environments, and many implementers are not agile or adaptive enough to keep girls at the center of their interventions. Too often the general practice is to passively rely on the girls who are able to access services, without necessarily addressing the profound barriers that prevent access and participation. Many programmes that aim to support girls focus solely on building protective assets for girls but are missing the market and policy level interventions that could catalyse transformative change.
So who could be agile and responsive enough to the market? That’s right, businesses. I argue that businesses can be the critical missing piece that is needed for girls’ empowerment.
Unfortunately, not many businesses target marginalised girls because of the way gender intersects with other forms of disadvantage, such as remoteness, poverty, ethnicity, or disability. “Business-as-usual” then likely overlooks the most vulnerable segments of girls, such as girls who are out of school, girls who are married early, disabled girls, or girls who are mothers – in other words, those who need services the most.
Furthermore, current approaches to achieving value for money have not been updated to reflect the challenges of reaching and engaging this hard-to-reach population, and therefore are not responsive to these challenges, inevitably leaving the most marginalised girls even further behind. By not recognising this and intentionally incorporating ways to address this, it is likely that instead of alleviating the marginalisation, we are in danger of perpetuating it.
How do we do better then? I believe that by tailoring our solutions to meet the needs of the hardest-to-reach clients we can benefit a country’s population at large. For businesses, this means identifying and locating the most marginalised girls, understanding and addressing the barriers they face, and delivering tailored solutions. My proposed formula is simple: step one – find the girls, step two – listen to them, and step three – design with them. It’s basically human-centered design with a gender lens.
We start with a question: which girls? Do we mean girls aged 10? 15? Or 19? Girls in rural Karamoja? Girls in the Zaatari refugee camp? Girls in the Dharavi slum? Or in coastal town in Maluku? Do we mean girls who are in school? Or those who are in school but will drop out in two years? Girls are not a homogenous group, so segmentation is key.
The next step is to consult these girls directly to ensure that we build effective solutions that address their needs, thereby positioning girls as experts of their own lived experience. If we are simply going on our intuition and assumptions about what their specific needs are, we might fail to provide them with solutions that enable them to thrive. This no different than doing your user journey research into a businesses’ target group, and is only more intentional about including marginalised girls.
We then should co-design our solution with the end-users – the girls – and then improve the design by iterating accordingly, before gradually bringing it to scale. This is one thing that businesses can do very well.
Julisa Tambunan is the Director of GirlSPARKS, a start-up that provides girl-centred design training and coaching to help organisations, businesses, and individuals to reach and engage adolescent girls –particularly the most marginalised, in the right way. Julisa brings 15 years of experience working with adolescent girls globally to the role, both in public and private sectors.