WFD’s International Women's Day campaign is a time to reflect on the progress we've made towards gender equality and the work that still needs to be done. As someone who attended the meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) nearly a decade ago, I learned first-hand the importance of asking about rights and needs of women and girls in one breath given the close relationship between them.
Despite the deep relationship between women and girls, we often use the conjunction 'and' to group them instead of connecting them. This disjoined rhetoric can be seen in the way that organisations and institutions operate, working either with women or girls, but not both. While this division can be helpful from an operational standpoint, it risks losing sight of the broader picture of how these spheres affect each other.
Take violence against women in politics. Mona Krook has shown that this violence, which ranges from physical to online abuse, is often motivated by gender not by politics or specific issues. It is directed specifically towards women to deter them from entering or continuing to be politically active. When women are removed from politics, their voices, needs, and perspectives are not adequately represented, and their skills, knowledge, and experience go unused. This erodes governance systems of all kinds and leaves half of the population without a voice in decision-making processes.
In the formative years when girls are making decisions about their future, images of politically active women experiencing brutal and constant violence, harassment, scrutiny, and hostile narratives can remove that career path from their considerations forever.
In addition to hostile environment, the current dominant role models of leadership are also not appealing to girls. According to a recent ‘The Girls’ Future Report’ commissioned by the Girls Day School Trust in the UK, being a leader is the lowest priority on a list of 17 career choices for girls aged 9-18. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean girls don’t want to be leaders. They would like to be a leader but ‘a different kind of leader’ where success is measured in a multidimensional way and is not limited to ‘traditional measure such as salary, prestige or power’. They want to be leaders who value honesty, integrity, collaboration, and resilience. These expectations are similar to those of many current and aspiring women leaders who, despite backlash, try to lead in ways that are authentic to them. This shows that the current structures are not fitting many women and girls who have more nuanced visions and expectations from leadership.
It is therefore not surprising to read that girls commonly don't find those in power as role models. To be a role model it is not enough to be famous and influential. Those individuals need to be able to spark imagination and expand what is possible, speak to the values individuals have and share common identities. When girls only see certain types of women political leaders with a few dominant characteristics and career paths, it is not surprising that they turn their heads away from politics and look for inspiration somewhere else where they have a better sense of belonging.
This is why it's essential to broaden the space for girls to participate in decision-making processes and be active citizens. Working towards eradicating the barriers that prevent girls from fulfilling their political and leadership potential is critical. Plan International has indicated that certain transitions that happen during puberty affect girls more than boys, such as child marriage, caring responsibilities, or structural barriers like poverty that forces girls to leave schools. These transitions ‘put into action the life pathways, opportunities and risks that will either enable or constrain a girl’s ability to develop and demonstrate leadership’.
In many cultures, wisdom is associated with age, and with that comes hierarchy. Technology and social media are disrupting that order. This can create opportunities, but also tension, maybe even conflict over power and influence. While at times it might require giving up your own space or sharing the seat, ultimately it is about opening the space up, not a zero-sum game. Broadening the space for girls to participate in decision-making processes and to be ‘agents of change’ in politics should follow the same logic as when it comes opening the space up for any other group. The benefits are the same – better informed decision-making processes, more adequate polices and laws; more inclusive and peaceful societies.
Ultimately, the connection between women and girls is an infinity loop where the paths are crossing at the ‘and’ point. It's crucial that we recognise and value the close relationship between women and girls. Strengthening women’s political leadership goes beyond the presence. It is intergenerational investments that underpins strong, peaceful and sustainable governance. At the same time, working to open up spaces for girls to develop their leadership skills and be active citizens is essential to create better informed decision-making processes, more adequate policies and laws, and more inclusive and peaceful societies. Despite differences there are many common expectations women and girls share which are mutually reinforcing. Let’s recognise and utilise them to strengthen women’s and girls’ leadership.