In 2020, IWORDS was commissioned by The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) to undertake a desk review aimed at understanding the value and relevance of girl empowerment and girl-only spaces to inform a global participatory research project. The desk review was based on the review of internal evidence from the organization’s experience and of information on the external landscape.
The existing literature about girls’ empowerment yielded an important limitation: the analysis is made following a binary gender assumption, which means that in all cases ‘girl’ is being used as distinct from ‘boy’ without acknowledging more fluid options.
To speak about girls’ empowerment, one must start by recognising the structural, institutional, and individual factors that create the barriers that girls face on a daily basis. The configuration of gender-based power relations in society, led by ideologies of gender domination and male privilege, coupled with the lack of educational opportunities, among other factors, contribute to girls’ disempowerment.
According to the literature, girls’ disempowerment is reflected in the lack of control that girls have over the decisions that affect their lives. Considering that the goal of empowerment is to address the causes of disempowerment, the process of empowerment ultimately intends to expand the ability of girls to choose. Mind you, an extensive part of the literature agrees that this expansion of the ability of girls to choose must be accompanied by a transformation in the power that they have over their life compared to the power they used to have. Of course, this must be carried out from the lens of intersectionality, understanding that asymmetric gender-based power relations affect all girls differently depending on the confluence of other factors such as age, race, socioeconomic status, and religion, among many others.
Girls’ ability to make decisions is at the core of the definition of empowerment but it is not the only element. What is known as ‘power within’—girls’ sense of self-esteem and self-worth—and the collective side of empowerment which speaks about collective action, are also part of the process of empowerment. The collective side of empowerment is crucial since it allows girls to influence social changes and modify the structures that affect their ability to choose and their possibilities in the economic, political, legal, and sociocultural context.
Beyond the academic literature, girls’ and women’s empowerment has been a guide in international forums and international policy frameworks; from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Since 1980, the concept of the empowerment of women and girls has been booming within development discourses and, consequently, it has been adopted by different intergovernmental organizations and by international organizations as well.
However, in recent years, some organizations are leaning towards avoiding the use of the term empowerment. The debate centres on the scope of the role of organizations in promoting girls’ empowerment. Some organizations prefer to use terms such as ‘agency’ and ‘power from within’ and have dedicated themselves to giving girls space, knowledge, and reflection tools so that they can unlock their potential by themselves and move through their own processes of personal and collective empowerment. Can an individual or an organization directly empower girls through an intervention? Would this shift imply a change in the approach of the programmes of some international development organizations?
Although not much is said about this shift in the literature, it may be one of the reasons why the concept of empowerment is being less and less used by organizations that fund initiatives for and by girls.
Based on the research, girls’ empowerment ends up being an individual and collective process of constant transformation. Even so, some successful programmatic practices that organizations around the world have implemented to accompany girls in this process were identified in the literature: designing programmes based on the understanding of empowerment and disempowerment of girls from an intersectional perspective; including the modification of discriminatory gender practices and norms in the programmes’ key objectives; involving families and take into account the relationship with other members of the community; allowing the meaningful participation of girls in project design; working on building safe spaces; incorporating relevant and age-appropriate content for girls; including comprehensive sexuality education; and supporting the self-organization efforts of girls and young women.