Two weeks ago, at the Global Citizen Festival in New York, international icons for female empowerment and societal betterment gathered to rally over 60,000 fans in support of girls’ education and other major development goals to end world poverty. Following an impactful series of conversations and performances from Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the world received an unprecedented commitment from the UN to “end gender inequality by 2030.” Many discussions that ensued heralded the political promise as a “transformative” gesture that would usher in “a new vision of education.” But this praise seems to be compensating for some major flaws in the conversation.
In an effort to build empathy, we’ve made it about us — transplanted our problems and perspectives onto people a world away. In an effort to rally support, we’ve justified our cause by highlighting the benefits to those around the people we’re trying to help, and on both sides of the conversation, we’ve lost sight of the girls and women we set out to help in the first place.
Somewhere in the midst of this new flurry of promises is a commitment from the White House (specifically Michelle Obama) to a program called “Let Girls Learn,” whose goal is to recognize and educate the “62 million girls around the world who are not in school.” A study recently released by McKinsey Global Institute found that if women and girls participated in the same numbers as men and boys in the labor force, the global GDP would increase by $28 trillion (roughly the combined GDPs of China and the United States). In that context, it makes sense that educating young girls and women would be at the top of the list in looking for solutions to world poverty. It makes sense that we would rally around those #62MillionGirls and understand when President Obama expresses that “these girls are our girls, and I simply cannot walk away from them.”
Except they aren’t our girls, and we can’t treat global issues with the panacea of empathy. In order to solve a problem, you have to understand it, and currently, there is a noticeable gap between the diverse group the Obamas are addressing and the words they’re leaving on the table.
While we may want to help as a nation, it is imperative that we recognize the differences in our global struggles for education. Empathy doesn’t translate to universally applicable solutions. And recognizing difference isn’t divisive; it’s the only real path to constructive change, especially when the problems of girls like Malala are not the same as those in America’s inner cities.
For weeks, Facebook has been bubbling over with shared, gifed and memed excerpts from the first lady’s speech, that many seem to believe encapsulate female empowerment: “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education.” (Pause for snaps, yes.) But these now famous words were followed directly by “If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the President of the United States.” Even setting aside the implicit narrowness of this particular set of sexuality and gender constructs, the underlying message is problematic.
First, the line addresses the wrong people. The challenge many of the 62 million girls face in trying to get an education isn’t some teenage crush, or even teenage pregnancy. In many cases, these are girls who are too poor, or whose families need them to carry water to and from their homes, or who have no sanitary facilities at school or are caught in the middle of a war so their primary focus has shifted from the luxury of education to the necessity of survival. Their struggle, which is at the center of the movement, is somehow left out of this conversation altogether. The second issue is the implied incentive for seeking an education. Even in cases where the problem is girls worrying that intelligence comes at the cost of beauty, is the solution really to flaunt winning the marital lottery by marrying the next potential president as the reason they should stick to it?
I believe the solution is to change the conversation.
The real issue with the “Let Girls Learn” campaign isn’t its goal, but its framework. So many of the messages contextualize girls as tools that can be used for the betterment of society. Whether that’s transforming the spaces they occupy or attaching them to a man’s arm (where his success apparently dictates hers in the marital race), girls never seem to be at the center of their own conversation. The founding website for the campaign explicitly says, “to educate a girl is to build a healthier family, a stronger community, and a brighter future.” It highlights that “countries with more girls in secondary school tend to have lower maternal mortality rates, lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and better nutrition.” All of that is great. But it completely fails to recognize Hillary Clinton’s famous line from the 1995 UN Beijing conference: “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”
Translation: Women deserve an education. Plain and simple. Not in recognition of their potential societal contributions, or as an investment in their offspring, but in their own right. In recognition of being human.
The Global Citizen Festival was undoubtedly a spectacular showing of what a lot of celebrities and intellectuals committed to an important cause can do for a movement, but social buzz and trending hashtags don’t eliminate flaws in the conversation. If we really want the “Let Girls Learn” campaign to revolutionize education and gender equality in the ways we hope it will, we have to aim for more than empowering girls in someone else’s context. We must recognize that they, and the challenges they face, are completely individual, and their solutions must be just as diverse as they are.
Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.