What about the boys? Thoughts on why we need to prioritize girls

On my first evening here in Uganda, I was asked by Innocent, a consultant to Bishop Asili hospital, where I live and work, why I’m neglecting the boys with a girl’s empowerment program. I spat out the usual platitudes: “it’s been found that you get the most return on your money when you invest in girls,” (which is true by the way, and if the $$$ argument won’t work on you I’m not sure what will).

At one point I tried to make the argument of scarce resources: “With a limited amount of funding…” This, he said, was an excuse but not a reason. And honestly, I felt that he was right. Shouldn’t I have a more robust explanation for investing in girls over boys than the fact that money is tight?

My friend Xuan just shared this article with me, and I really love the author’s flippant response when this question is posed to him:

“I’ve just spent a lot of time detailing the structural and systematic exclusion of a largely marginalised and often vulnerable population. So why are you still only interested in the empowered group?”

Why DO so many development organizations and world leaders, including President wa Mutharika of Malawi, where I spent 1.5 years, President ‘Jokowi’ Widodo of Indonesia, where I spent 3 months, and President DeGioia of my most recent alma mater, Georgetown University, agree that it’s time to focus on adolescent girls?

I wanted to do a little more digging, because I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I gave Innocent. I want to be prepared next time, because as sure as the sun will rise, I will continue to be smugly challenged: “What about the boys?”

So here goes.

Adolescent girls need targeted, substantial interventions because…

…it’s more dangerous to be a girl than a boy.

Fact: girls and boys are different. Fact: girls face more challenges than boys. Fact: it is more dangerous to be a girl in this world than it is to be a boy.

Amartya Sen famously figured that there are 100 million missing women; women who are supposed to be here with us on this planet, but they’re not. They’re missing. They’re missing because of “a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women.” They’re missing because of sex-selective abortions in India, a one-child policy in China that discouraged families from keeping girls and resulted in one of the most serious gender imbalances in the world today, and the fact that often, families are less willing and slower to seek medical care for their girl children than they are for their boys.

Add to that the abhorrent rates of physical and/or sexual violence, (worldwide: 35% of women have experienced this), and it’s easy to see that girls are at much higher risk than boys.

…girls’ worlds are shrinking while boys’ worlds are growing.

You may have been encouraged by a parent or mentor to think of “the world as your oyster.” But this is simply not true for many adolescent girls across the world. A study conducted in South Africa found that girls’ communities shrink as they enter adolescence, while boys’ spatial access increases with age.

“Reducing girls’ access to the public sphere does not increase their perceived safety, but may instead limit their access to opportunities for human development.”

If we do nothing, we are complicit in the creation and maintenance of a world that is particularly unsafe for girls, a world where literal geographic boundaries are laid down that girls’ bodies, hopes and dreams cannot cross. To stick to the status quo means discouraging girls from realizing their full potentials.

…it’s not a zero-sum game.

Let’s get one thing straight: empowering girls does not mean neglecting boys. Since when does giving girls a designated space of their own to come together, discuss, learn, grow and build relationships take anything away from boys?

Actually, when we talk honestly about traditional gender roles and their impacts on our individual lives, we create the opportunity to acknowledge that while girls are unfairly limited (often expected to help with household chores while boys are free to play and study), rigid definitions of femininity and masculinity are also very harmful to boys.

“American men are more likely to kill (committing 90.5 percent of all murders) and be killed (comprising 76.8 percent of murder victims).”

In the wake of dishearteningly pervasive gun violence in America, how many of these mass shootings have been committed by girls and women, and how many by boys and men?

Boys are healthier when allowed to express a full range of emotions and pursue varied interests. If it sounds like I’m advocating for gender programming for boys, I am. The aggressors have problems that need to be addressed, but does it make sense to treat the violators or the violated first?

…what’s ‘fair’ anyways?

Let’s go back to Amartya Sen, who proposes that the basic concern of human development is “our capability to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value.”

From here

Life isn’t fair. Even if we were all to get an equal amount of resources (see above diagram), because we have different personal utilization functions, we’ll achieve unequal levels of utility as a result. To achieve an outcome of equality does not mean distributing resources equally.

To achieve equality, you must make uneven investments.

Because girls have had to face more adversity and hardship than boys from the get-go, girls must receive more resources than boys in order to achieve comparable levels of subjective well-being.

Whether overtly (made to do more chores; kept out of school; given less medical treatment), or more subtly (unfair expectations of women to be pretty, polite, cute, deferential, quiet, chaste, not too smart, not too ambitious), women have to deal with more shit and work harder than their male counterparts. This guy gets it.

…first things first.

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Levels of empowerment are kind of like that. Only when your material needs are met do you have the time/energy/bandwidth to concern yourself about equal access to resources, equal participation, and finally, equal control over factors of production and distribution of benefits. If you never believe you have the right to demand equality at the next level, you’ll never demand the next level.

Lena and I adapted this for a paper we wrote last spring.

In order to claim what is rightfully ours, we first must believe that it is rightfully ours. That we deserve and are owed it.

That is why we have to start with the foundation, informing girls that there is a different way, so that they can first imagine it, and then demand it.

Girls must learn that the way things have always been is not the way things have to be.

Girls must believe that they deserve better than what they’ve been given.

Girls must internalize that they are NOT inherently worth less than their brothers.

Girls must believe that they are equally as capable as boys.

…resources ARE finite, though.

I’m not saying not to invest in boys. Actually, we desperately need boys and men as allies in the struggle for girls’ and women’s equality.

Just like the LGBTQ movement is stronger with heterosexual and cisgender allies.

Just like the anti-gun violence movement needs responsible gun owners to speak up for reasonable regulations and legislation that makes sense, lest we get paralyzed by the ‘taking away my second amendment rights’ straw man argument and do nothing while children continue to be killed.

Just like the #blacklivesmatter movement needs white allies, who don’t respond with a misguided and hurtful retort of “all lives matter” but who instead respond with an emphatic “yes, black lives do matter.”

Any struggle for justice needs the beneficiaries of injustice to realize their unearned privilege, then actively and consciously work to dismantle the unjust system. But even before this, the ones who have suffered the consequences of historical injustice must be educated, repaired, empowered.

To undo all the messages girls have been receiving to the contrary will take massive amounts of dedicated resources, targeted interventions, and special spaces. When girls feel confident, use their voices to fully participate, and believe that they are equal players, then we can bring in the boys, to have honest discussions about gender, gender roles, sex, sexual expressions, identities, and the whole gamut.

But first the girls.

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