Improve the economy, ‘empower’ women: we need to think critically about ‘investing in a girl to save the world’

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‘Girl power’, ‘girls running the world’, and ‘girl leaders’ are just a few examples of the way non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments, and supranational bodies (e.g. the UN)  frame the agenda to achieve global ‘gender equality and women’s empowerment’ around the world. In recent years, many development agencies have turned to the empowerment of young women and girls (EWAG) as the key to alleviating global poverty[1],   when in fact, it burdens the young women and girls it claims to be able to help. Ultimately, this line of thinking is rooted in liberal feminism: it seeks to integrate young women and girls into male-dominant institutions, without contesting the patriarchal, heteronormative, racist and capitalist foundations of political and social structures. By obscuring these systems of power which facilitate and perpetuate poverty in the Global South[2], liberal feminism’s individualist focus on investing in young women and girls’ empowerment cannot, ultimately, save the world.

The EWAG agenda perpetuates a rhetoric of ‘investing in girls’ – e.g.  investing in schooling and providing vocational skills – as a means to female empowerment. In actuality, a predefined set of choices are prescribed when we ‘invest in girls’: the pursuit of secondary education, delayed marriage and parenthood, and entrepreneurship. The simplicity of this approach erases from view the heteronormative, racist, and classist hierarchies within education, marriage norms, and capitalist structures. Thus, demonstrating a lack of consideration for poor, LGBTQ+, and/or ethnic minority women who hold multiple axes of marginalisation. This is not to say that we should abandon gender equal educational attainment, but we must consider in what way it is framed.

The liberal feminist idea that ‘investing in girls saves the world’ is based upon an archetypal, racist vision of girlhood in the Global South: a cisgender, straight, essentialised girl who requires white, Western saviourism to rescue her from her violent marriage by sticking a smartphone in her hand as a means to ‘empowerment’. It hypervisibilises the strict categorisation of ‘men’ and ‘women’, thereby entrenching the colonial global gender binary[3]. Furthermore, men are posed as perpetrators of violence; and women are victims, who are less prone to non-heterosexual practices and overall maintain less sexual desire[4]

Many facets of girls’ lives are ignored by this ideology: What about social and economic precarity? What are the effects of the extractive practices of transnational corporations on her life? What are the implications of institutionalised discrimination against minorities in her lived context? Liberal feminism ignores these considerations before imposing Western-centric racialised and gendered ideas of women and girls in the Global South: simultaneously passive victims and heroines who can save the world, with no regard for what ‘she’ actually wants[5].

This imposed, linear pathway in how young women and girls achieve empowerment is framed by maximising the (economic) ‘potential’ of girls.[6] The EWAG agenda assumes that the economic market can ‘save’ the girl from specific patriarchal and cultural expectations (e.g. early marriage), all whilst failing to acknowledge the patriarchal relations present within the very economic markets ‘she’ is being pushed towards.[7]  The only world liberal feminists are trying to save is one that shepherds young women and girls from the Global South into exploitative capitalist relations, all whilst masquerading as ‘gender equality’ and ‘empowerment’. It’s time to rethink and reframe our analysis.