Trendy Neocolonialism: Saving Third World Girls

The Obamas struck a deal recently with Pakistan’s leader Nawaz Sharif; they are investing $70 million to educate Pakistani girls. It’s part of Michelle’s Let Girls Learn initiative that aims at “helping adolescent girls attend school and complete their education.”

“The first lady’s office hopes the awareness campaign will help girls overcome barriers such as poverty, cultural norms and violence that get in the way of their school attendance,” reported the LA Times.

How do the Obamas plan on changing these “cultural norms?” Someone needs to inform the White House that this simplistic rhetoric of educating or saving “third world girls” is nonsense.

I’m neither against education for all, nor undermining the importance of learning, but the assumption that once Pakistani girls get educated they will be able to break out of poverty, cultural norms and violence is very wrong. The Obamas, as well as the United Nations and all major organizations and corporations focusing on girls education, knew exactly what they were doing when the discourses shifted the focus on third world girls. The “Girl Effect” became trendy.

In Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A Perfect Storm, social anthropologist, Kate Grosser, and feminist and author, Nikki Van Der Gaag, ask the question, “Can girls save the world?” While the authors welcome the fact that the international development world is finally talking about girls and how to invest in programs that support girls, they are skeptical about the motives and success of such initiatives.

“While we might expect the private sector to ignore social and political context, and decades of research on gender and development, why, we wonder, are governments and inter-governmental development agencies colluding with this ahistorical approach to girls? Are they just desperate for money? Unless the girls campaign is underpinned by a deeper understanding and explanation of the causes of poverty, of power and justice and attitudinal change, and of gender discrimination and women, the Girl Effect will be ineffective, and perhaps even counterproductive,” write the authors.

The “Girl Effect” dismisses the fact that there are several social and cultural categories — including gender, race, class, status, and ethnicity — that play a huge role in creating social inequalities and multiple systems of oppression and discrimination against women and young girls.

So why is everyone suddenly talking about girls? Why are the Obamas interested in educating Pakistani girls? Deputy director of South Asia Institute at the University of London, Navtej K. Purewal, argues that Malala Yousafzai is the modern symbol and liberating tool used to promote the education of third world girls. Looking deeper into this spectacle of Malala, Purewal says that the other immediate threats such as military intervention and drone attacks in Pakistan, where thousands have died, are being ignored.

“Girl-centered development campaigns fail to consider girls’ real desires and problems, and portray them both as victims and saviors of the global economy.”

“The symbol of Malala is deprived of a critique of the contexts out of which it has been created — by “it,” I mean the symbol and not the individual. These contexts present a far more complex picture that has been capitalized upon by forces implicit in the very creation of the symbol,” Purewal said.

She continued, “The contemporary global context of education exists so intrinsically within this web of military power, neoliberal economic influence and the moral justification for intervention that even the individual behind the symbol cannot penetrate the hegemony of the symbolism made in her name.”

In, an article titled “Girl-Centered Projects Based on Development Fantasy” discusses campaigns that promote empowerment of girls as guise to boost economic growth.

“Girl-centered development campaigns fail to consider girls’ real desires and problems, and portray them both as victims and saviors of the global economy,” Cynthia Caron and Shelby Margolin said. The development scholars at Clark University view education programs for girls that focus on wage earning as a “development fantasy” perpetuating a “failed development narrative that economic growth inevitably leads to an equitable future for all.”

Instead of tackling poverty and cultural norms abroad, Barack and Michelle Obama should instead invest in educating American teenagers. According to the New York TimesNicholas Kristof, the reason pregnancy is high among teen girls in the US — one-third of American girls become pregnant as teenagers — is lack of proper education.

“It’s not just a story of heedless girls and boys who don’t take precautions. This is also a tale of national irresponsibility and political irresponsibility — of us as a country failing our kids by refusing to invest in comprehensive sex education. Young Americans show a lack of understanding of where babies come from,” Kristof said.

Who cares about teen pregnancy rates, poverty and lack of education in America. Let’s go educate girls elsewhere. Neoliberal interventions must maintain their legitimacy in the name of girls’ education!


Image: White House