Mary Walker: Empowerment opportunities for girls

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I have written a lot the past couple of years about the challenges of trying to deliver empowerment opportunities to girls, specifically in my case, to Maasai girls in Kenya.

Too many of the organizations that are in the business of girls’ and women’s empowerment are completely out of reach of those who actually need them.

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Mary Walker

I’ve written about the problem of individuals or groups of girls/women being invisible to these organizations because the focus too often is on how to attract donors instead of how to find recipients. This only will change when the donors themselves insist on a different focus.

Organizations that claim to want to improve access to education for girls and women — but don’t offer scholarships so that individual girls and women actually can gain access to that education — are not doing their job.

It seems like a no-brainer to me: If an organization wants to provide education, then it must provide education to individuals.

An organization that states that it wants to “fundamentally address the conditions that give rise” to the problem of lack of access to education for girls and women doesn’t see that one way to do just that is to provide scholarships to individual girls and women.

Sending a girl to college or university would put her family on a new path that fundamentally would address those conditions directly.

Not all empowerment, not even the most effective empowerment, is community, organizational or globally based. It must begin and end with empowering individuals.

In the case of education, if lack of it is the problem, then improve access to it by providing it to individuals.

What I consider to be cosmetic notions of girls’ empowerment are abundant right now. Providing more girls with the opportunity to go to high school is obviously an important part of the movement, but it is not enough.

Ask any Maasai girl if she feels empowered after she had the opportunity to go to high school but then had the educational rug ripped out from under her when she finished. Ask her how she intends to become the teacher, doctor, nurse or accountant that she thought she could become. Ask her if having to go home to the same economic and cultural conditions and isolation at home that put her at risk of female genital mutiliation and child marriage in the first place makes her situation any better just because she speaks the King’s English.

In my opinion, most girls’ empowerment programs do not yet have the answer to meaningful empowerment that can be seen and experienced by enough individual girls, though they do seem to know the answer to effective fundraising, donor relations and feel-good activism.

There is a huge difference between judging the success of an organization’s empowerment efforts by quantifying the number of girls being empowered in some generic, cosmetic and murky way and judging their success by the number of specific girls who have succeeded in becoming teachers, doctors and accountants.

This difference is absolutely devastating to huge numbers of individual girls who have been promised empowerment.

Simply put, touting that an organization has “rescued” 1,546 girls or “empowered” 325 young women is a meaningless statistic that only has some feel-good value to donors.

Whereas, enabling 1,546 girls to go to college or 325 young women to own their own business is a truly meaningful measure of empowerment.

It is time for the experiences of individuals, not the vague definitions of success as prescribed by the organizations claiming to be in the business of empowering, to be the measure of girls’ empowerment.

Mary Walker, a 27-year resident of Clark, first went to Kenya in 2007 to volunteer at a rescue centre for Maasai girls. She has organized assistance for several Maasai young women to attend college and university in Kenya. She can be reached at mewalker99@yahoo.com.

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