All this talk about uplifting girls isn’t helping them

Oxfam's lift lives for good campaign photo.

(Copenhagen, Denmark) The campaigns that are meant to improve the lives of women and girls are distorting the way that we view people living in poverty and actually harms progress, says one researcher.

“There is a longstanding colonial narrative of uplift and rescue, when it comes to women and girls,” said Andrea Cornwall, a Professor of Anthropology and Development with the University of Sussex, while presenting yesterday at the Voice and Matter conference at Roskilde University in Denmark.

“The stories of women feature them as either as heroines or as victims.”

By putting women into the two categories, they are seen as either people who are lifting themselves up or are in need of help to escape poverty or oppression. The idea is further reinforced by popular depictions such as women or girls carrying things on their heads, attending seminars for microfinance, dressed colorfully or producing artisanal goods like baskets and beads.

A more nuanced view on ending power emerged in the past few years only to recede, argued Cornwall. She used a recent Oxfam campaign as an example of the larger problem. The image is if women who are literally lifted above the ground, floating in the air, as a representation of being lifted out of poverty. Such images and videos like the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect succeed in appealing to foreigners. The story of empowerment ignores the fundamental issues of power.

“There is a need to shift from the idea of personal accumulation of power to collective power,” said Cornwall.

Doing so will require engagement with existing structural problems. She also mentioned Nick Kristof. His stories have put a premium on rescuing girls from the trade. The American journalist has covered raids on brothels, helped pay to free trafficked girls and profiled some of the people involved with putting an end to the trade in south-east Asia.

Such depictions may represent only the way that outsiders view a situation, as opposed to how people see themselves. The good news is that the spread of internet access means that the people who were once only depicted can now tell their own stories and react to what is said about them.

“For all the warm and fuzzy images of smiling women and laughing girls that appear in marketing materials, the vision of change purveyed by “empowerment lite” is frighteningly stark: one in which women and girls are recruited for their industriousness, and put to work to maintain a status quo that is deeply unjust,” wrote Cornwall for the Guardian, in 2012.

In the case of the VICE produced film Prostitutes of God, the women who were shown in the report published a response to the film and explained what it got wrong on YouTube. They objected to the depiction of prostitution as something shameful and terrible. It led to direct change. The report initially outed a young girl as HIV positive, putting her at risk if other people saw it. That section was removed, but the overall film stands.

It stands in stark contrast with a film produced by the very same group of prostitutes and Cornwall a few years prior. Save us from Saviors is the story of the collective group VAMP, an organization that helps bring together prostitutes in India and provides them the ability to combat stigma and receive services like counseling and free condoms. When the VAMP members told their own story they focused on the choice they made to participate the sex trade. By flipping the tradition that women do not financially support their families they feel empowered.

Viewers meet the women who work as prostitutes in India. They get to hear them explain why they do it. They also hear from one son of a prostitute who came to understand his mother’s choice and now works to support the network. It does not fit neatly into how woman’s empowerment and prostitution is often discussed.

“Empowering women and girls and enabling boys and men separates the two out as if they are not a part of the same thing. That is hideous,” said Cornwall. “We shouldn’t get stuck in this hole that the development industry narrative takes us into.”

The simple narrative about girls and women helps to dictate the programs that are implemented. The concern for Cornwall is that they are may actually making the lives of girls better. If the underlying issues that are contributing to the hardships faced by girls in developing countries are not addressed, then campaigns to lift them up are putting a band-aid on a bullet hole at best.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Timothy Phan

    I completely agree with you 100%.

    I am also unsure how to communicate this message to some of my less critical friends in development without coming of as a pessimistic naysayer and ruining the friendship. I don’t feel comfortable telling someone who spent a lot of time and energy into a #girlsrising-esque campaign effort that their entire project is premised upon false assumptions. This is even more true since my own career has been shifting away from “global development”, and I don’t feel like I have much personal legitimacy to criticize such projects.

    Help? How have you dealt with this situation before?