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No Reason to Wait: Girls are Ready to Lead Now

Posted 10 October 2023 in EMpower News   |   Share

This is the first post in a new EMpower blog series called “Shifting the Narrative,” which features voices from within the EMpower ecosystem on critical issues affecting young people, philanthropy, and the sector as a whole.

Why should we be supporting girls’ leadership? Too often the rationale for investing in girls is framed as investing in their future selves—as mothers, community members, voters, or workers. And indeed, there is strong evidence that supporting girls has important payoffs down the road. For example, investments in girls’ education—where the research base is strongest—have been shown to have positive effects on their future employment and income and their children’s survival. With access to education, girls are also less likely to experience unplanned pregnancies or acquire HIV.

All too often, programmes for girls are positioned as building their capacity as future leaders. In the Resourcing Girls to Thrive report, the researchers noted that funders assume that child-focused programming will meet girls’ present-day needs and that building leadership only has a pay-off in the future, when girls become adults and take leadership roles in their communities.

A focus on girls’ future well-being or contributions to society ignores their rights and agency. More problematically, the often-used rationale for investing in girls as potential facilitators of the health or development of others instrumentalises them. Girls deserve support for who they are now, not who they could be in the future. 

At EMpower, our work investing in and learning from girls since 2006 paints a very different picture. We have seen that girls are ready to, and do, lead now. They have perspectives, knowledge, and voices —if given the microphone to express themselves. As compared to many adults, they are more likely to be listened to and trusted by other girls, therefore holding unparalleled ability to mobilise peers and build collective power. As the true experts on their lived realities, girls know best about their own needs, challenges, and unfulfilled opportunities. They are indispensable advisors to funders and those running programmes for girls. As Rubi, from our Girls Advisory Council in India, said “For real change to happen, we need more than words.”

We experienced this first-hand with girl-led participatory research that we funded and facilitated in 2021 to better understand girls’ needs in India during the pandemic, called COVID In Her Voice. This research was immeasurably stronger and more relevant because girls fine-tuned the survey questions, suggested others, and conducted interviews with their peers. They had unique perspectives in analysing the data and making recommendations to key stakeholders: funders, government and community leaders, and those running youth-focused programmes. They came up with solutions to some of their most pressing needs, such as: safe spaces in the community where they could share technology, complete their homework together, and build friendships. We take our responsibility to resource their recommendations very seriously, and therefore have embedded their ideas into our grantmaking strategies.

At EMpower, we centre girls and involve them in decisions about our programmes and approaches. Through our multi-faceted work with girls globally—advisory councils, learning communities, participatory grantmaking and research—it’s clear that girls are ready to lead NOW. As Sabah Siddiqui, who was a part of our Adolescent Girls Learning Community in Mumbai noted, “Girls should be brought together, their opinions need to be heard.”

Girls can lead in prioritising strategies, allocating and aligning resources, mobilising support, inspiring others, and solving problems. What they need is trust and belief in their present selves and their capabilities to lead, individually and collectively. We are committed to that vision and to showing up for girls as they are, not simply for their future selves and who they may become.

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