Healthy Transitions for Adolescent Girls: working session at the CGI

Panelists at the CGI Global Health working sessionYesterday I watched the live video feed of a Global Health working session at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. (The press can’t attend the actual working sessions, so we had to sit and watch from the press room.) A bit of background – at the CGI Annual Meetings, government, corporate, and NGO leaders get together to discuss major world issues and figure out ways to tackle them. Each day they break out into working sessions, each one devoted to one of this year’s four focus areas: Poverty Alleviation, Energy and Climate Change, Education, and Global Health. This particular Global Health working session was entitled “Healthy Transitions for Adolescent Girls,” which immediately jumped out at me as a topic of great interest, both personally and for folks at Feministe.

The working session started off with a panel discussion between Bene Madunagu, co-founder of the extraordinary Girls’ Power Initiative and professor of botany at the University of Calabar in Nigeria; Ashley Judd, actress and board member of Population Services International (PSI); Maria Eitel, President of the Nike Foundation and Vice-President of Nike, Inc; and moderator Felicia Marie Knaul, Senior Economist at the Fundación Mexicana para la Salud and Director of their Health and Competitiveness Initiative. Right off the bat, the makeup of this group made the panel a unique one at the CGI in that it was entirely comprised of women. Predictably, most of the other other panels at the Meeting are either all or predominantly male, the Global Health and Education working sessions being the only exceptions. Note that neither exception is one of the plenaries, the big highlight events of the Meeting. At the Luncheon Plenary today, moderator Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland) pointed out the disparity in that panel, which was otherwise all male, saying “First of all, a broad observation: not too gender balanced. Don’t worry – I’ll handle that, no problem.” She said this to laughter and applause, though while I appreciated the observation and the joke, I think the worry was less that she would be able to handle those guys and more that male voices would, once again, be dominant by virtue of sheer numbers.

While it was refreshing to see an all women panel for this working session, there were other dynamics that didn’t sit quite as well with me but which were also exemplary of the dynamics of this entire Meeting. The conversation was primarily focused on girls living in poverty in Africa and Southeast Asia; except for Madunagu, none of the panelists could have possibly ever been an adolescent girl growing up facing the conditions and issues that they described. The rest of the panelists were all North American, wealthy, well-educated white women. Although throughout the panel they spoke of worthy work, goals, and ideas, they were also speaking from a place of extreme privilege relative to the girls of whom they spoke. This dynamic – those with extreme privilege discussing and trying to figure out the problems of the oppressed and extremely underprivileged in the complete absence of those people who are being discussed – never sits quite well with me, even when “good work” is being done. And unfortunately, it is a dynamic that has characterized the entire CGI.

Another dynamic that’s been in effect throughout this Meeting was exemplified by Nike’s Maria Eitel’s presence on the panel. Nike has been frequently criticized for human rights and labor rights violations, including a 2008 Australian news investigation into human trafficking and forced labor by a Nike contractor in Malaysia. So, while Eitel said a great many things that I appreciated and agreed with, and while the Nike Foundation is doing good work (such as their Girls Count initiative and The Girl Effect campaign that Eitel discussed at length), both Nike and Eitel personally have also been responsible for and benefited from abuse, exploitation, and oppression. Time and time again at the CGI, I’ve cringed at this contradiction: politicians and corporations who have used and continue to use their considerable power and privilege in unjust ways here using it to try to change the world for the better. How can we reconcile those things? Can we reconcile those things?

Anyhow – that’s a whole other blog post (which I’m planning to write at the end of the CGI.)

Despite these dynamics, the discussion (which you can watch on the CGI website) was actually really interesting and engaging. The panel took a very holistic approach to the topic, focusing not simply on physical health but on the mental and educational well being of young women. It was exciting to hear Bene Madunagu talk about her program, Girls’ Power Initiative, both as a success story and a model for other work that can be done to help empower adolescent girls and improve their lives. She spoke of how important it us not only to focus on the challenges that society imposes on these girls, but also on their amazing resourcefulness and generosity. Madunagu continually spoke of how young women can themselves become change agents, transforming the norms of their society and thereby breaking down those socially imposed challenges. I appreciated this message so much because it stressed that the girls themselves could do so much to change their own communities and societies when given the right resources and messages of empowerment and self-worth. Madunagu spoke of how it’s not only the girls themselves that benefit and are changed by the program, but also their parents, their male siblings and relatives, and eventually their entire communities; the larger paradigm of sexism and devaluation of women and girls begins to shift.

The other panelists’ comments reflected these ideas. Eitel spoke extensively of the “girl effect”: if you invest in a girl, you invest not only in her life, but in the lives of her entire family, her community, and her country. Eitel said that the Nike Foundation realized that investing in adolescent girls was the best investment they could make in order to change the game and change the world. While it was a little weird to hear girls spoken of as an “investment,” this also reflected an unfortunate reality – that girls are often viewed as either burdens or commodities that can be traded to sustain the livelihood of a family.

One of the points I appreciated hearing most was Eitel’s insistence that simply focusing on girls’ education without addressing the other factors contributing to her poverty and the poverty of her family and community would never work, because those factors are constantly pulling her away from education. For families enduring extreme poverty, there is no clear economic reward in a girl getting an education; the short term gain is to be had by girls staying in the home and working, or alternatively using their bodies as commodities either through sex work or marriage. By working to address the factors contributing to poverty, girls are able to get their education, stay healthy, and put off marriage and child-bearing until they are older – all things that, in turn, benefit their families and help keep them healthier and more stable in the long term.

These are just some of the ideas that the panel discussed; I encourage folks to check out the video of the discussion to hear more of what was said.

After the panelists’ discussion, the room broke into smaller groups to strategize concrete plans and next steps for improving the lives of adolescent girls. Afterward, the facilitator reported back on some of the common themes and specific ideas that the group had come up with. Common themes: including boys and families in the equation: “bring girls in, do not kick boys out” (interesting that this was the first common theme presented, as if empowering girls implies a disempowerment of boys is imminent); assisting girls within their current cultural framework, with a longer term goal of change social norms (cynical about whether that means the imposition or normalization of Western culture and values); using tech and the internet to connect girls and allow them to tell stories; developing international and national curriculum around women’s rights, sexuality, and business; and promoting powerful role models – politicians, community leaders, midwives, and world leaders. Specific ideas: having a Nobel Peace Summit focused on girls and inviting global leaders – the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oprah Winfrey were mentioned; using the world’s attention on futbol, the World Cup and Nike to use ads to promote girls’ issues in all countries; using conditional cash incentives to encourage families to keep their daughters in school; establishing a code of conduct for corporations around fair treatment of and investment in girls in local communities; and an international Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. Frankly? I was unimpressed by the ideas they came up with. They’re all fine, but not particularly concrete or innovative, and few were focused on tackling the root causes of the challenges that adolescent girls face. Was this all that this room of intelligent, powerful people could come up with? Might they have done better if they could remotely relate to the situations that these girls are in? What do you think?

Cross-posted at Feministe

1 Response to “Healthy Transitions for Adolescent Girls: working session at the CGI”

  1. 1 Billy

    Good post, Jack. Excuse any sweeping over generalizations I make here for the sake of brevity.

    This reminds me of a symposium I was at not long ago in which a white person giddily showcased a short video about an upcoming educational children’s show that was filled with youth of color that ended on a screen that said, I kid you not, “The revolution WILL be televised.” She was, best case scenario, oblivious to the origins of the phrase.

    Privileged people sitting around trying to decided how to help less privileged people is always rife with problems. I think this is particularly true when it comes to older folks who seek to help young people. Two reasons come to mind, privileged folks seem to assume (much of the time) that less privileged folks want to be like them. And I don’t mean just the privileged part. And the related reason, privileged folks are often the benefactors of protestant or catholic capitalism and seem to frequently think that they are rich because they are right or good. If they were wrong or bad, they would be poor. Hence they don’t realize it is a relatively fragile thing to feel entitled to your own opinion, if they realize at all that their way of looking at the world is an opinion and not “the way it really is.” And so their ‘solutions’ to the world’s problems always seem to bare the very seeds of the problems within them.

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