Empowering Girls: Challenges and Opportunities

Empowering Girls: Challenges and Opportunities

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As the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl Child today October 11, 2017, under the theme EmPOWER Girls: Before, during and after crises, the Women’s Torch would like to begin by demystifying the concept of empowerment to enable our readers understand the concept broadly in order to be clear about how and why empowerment programmes for women and girls are necessary to bring about social change.

Empowerment means different things to different people.  At the core of the concept of empowerment is the idea of power.  Power is often defined only in negative terms, and as a form of domination, but it can also be a positive force to build individual and collective capacity for change.  In A New Weave of Power (2002, Lisa VeneKlasen and Valeries Miller describe four ‘expressions of power’ as: Power Over, Power To, Power With and Power Within.

Many people relate the term power to ‘Power over.’  It is associated with control and domination and is the ability to make others do what we want, regardless of their own wishes or interests.  It involves disempowering the other person(s) and using the ‘power over’ to prevent them from participating in decision making and from owning and controlling resources. When people are denied access to education, health care and information and to important resources like land, ‘power over’ perpetuates inequality, injustice and poverty.

‘Power to’ refers to the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. When based on mutual support, it opens up the possibilities of joint action, or ‘power with’. Scholars and change agents refer to ‘power to’ and ‘power with’ as the ability to act and change the world – by scholars and social change agents.

‘Power with’ is about finding common ground among different interests and groups and building collective strength. Based on mutual support, solidarity and collaboration, ‘power with’ multiplies individual talents and knowledge.   ‘Power with’ can help build bridges across different interests to transform or reduce social conflict and promote equitable relations.

‘Power within’ has to do with a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others. ‘Power within’ is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfilment.

From this perspective it can be understood that power does not exist in isolation nor is it inherent in individuals. By implication, since power is created in relationships, power and power relationships can change. Empowerment as a process of change, then, becomes a meaningful concept and not something that should be shunned when trying to bring it in into social development work.

Empowerment should therefore be seen as a process that enables people to gain control of and over their own lives.  It is a multi-dimensional social process that helps individuals and communities to use their power to act on issues that are of importance to them and not imposed on them by others.

Yet in many African countries, empowerment programmes for women and girls face many challenges.  Women are expected to be submissive and not to have a voice.  Voicelessness impacts negatively on women’s participation in decision making and has contributed greatly to keeping women out of public spaces and to coerce them into accepting untenable positions in the private sphere.

Because of entrenched gender stereotypes and inequalities women and girls have found it difficult to have a say in matters that affect their lives.  Education is an important empowering tool but in Sub-Saharan Africa many girls are denied their right to basic education. Statistical data shows that more than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa.  This limits their opportunities and disempowers them.

Voiceless and helpless, many of them are vulnerable to child marriages, early and unwanted pregnancies, gender-based violence including sexual and physical violence and trafficking. Adolescent girls in conflict zones are 90 per cent more likely to be out of school when compared to girls in conflict-free areas compromising their future prospects for work and financial independence as adults.

However, when girls are empowered to speak up for themselves, they can overcome gender-based constraints, especially those imposed by culture and tradition.  One good example of a girl’s empowerment programme is the Tuseme programme implemented by the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE).

FAWE believes that for meaningful transformation of gender relations, girls must participate in efforts to eliminate the discrimination and inequalities they face within their schools and communities. Tuseme meaning ‘Let us Speak Out’ in Swahili is an innovative empowerment programme which uses theatre-for-development techniques to address concerns that hinder girls’ social and academic development.

Tuseme trains girls to identify and understand the problems that affect them, articulate these problems and take action to solve them. Through drama, song and creative arts, girls learn negotiation skills, how to speak out, self-confidence, decision-making and leadership skills. Boys are also involved in the programme.

Tuseme which was launched in 1996 at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is being implemented in 15 African countries including the following West African countries- Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal.

On the International Day of the Girl Child it is important to recognise that there will always be challenges to empowerment programmes.  However, confronting this challenge innovatively and with courage is important as it unleashes the potential of the girl to take control of her life.  Society must recognise that an empowered girl is the engine to driving change and helping build a better future for all of us.