It’s the week before I leave for Morocco and my mom and I are at Rio doing a last-minute search for Tevas. We pass by Justice, the girls’ clothing store that has supplanted Limited Too, my style inspiration from childhood (and adolescence—I was that kid). I point out to my mom how the pink rhinestone t-shirts that used to say “Girls Got Game, Boys Got Shame” and “Sweet Dreams,” now say things like “Make Your Own Path,” “Everyone Loves a Brave Girl,” “Smart Girls,” and “Girls Can Change the World.”
“Seems like an awful lot of pressure,” my mom remarked. I couldn’t help but agree. When I was a girl, I didn’t see myself as a morally upstanding global citizen out to change the world (granted, it was probably because I didn’t have a backpack that reminded me I could). I couldn’t help but wonder if the intentionally feminist messages on these shirts appealed more to millennial mothers asking, “can women have it all,” versus their 8-year-old daughters wearing them.
These thoughts about girls and millennial feminism resurfaced during Peace Corps orientation. Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative recently announced programming in Morocco. Let Girls Learn calls on organizations worldwide to make commitments aimed at “ensuring adolescent girls across the world attain a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential.”
As part of this announcement, Morocco became Peace Corps’ 36th Let Girls Learn country, meaning that Peace Corps staff will train community leaders and us volunteers to “advance girls’ education and empowerment.” Peace Corps Volunteers will work with “local leaders to focus on building critical skills for leadership and employment.”
In line with this initiative, Peace Corps Volunteers have been facilitating “Girls Leading Our World (GLOW)” and “Boys Respecting Others (BRO)” camps, clubs, and events. In addition, current Peace Corps- Morocco Volunteers have worked with girls featured in the movie We Will Rise, which is premiering on CNN International on this year’s International Day of the Girl. The movie focuses on the girls’ “challenges and resiliency in the name of education.”
Education & Empowerment
As you can see from the Peace Corps- Let Girls Learn partnership, girls’ education and empowerment go hand-in-hand, and empowerment is often seen as an outcome of education. Girls around the world may be barred an education due to physical, cultural, and financial power structures. Some reasons include the cost of education, distance to school, unsafe schools, gender norms, poverty, lack of healthcare access, and early marriage/pregnancy. Yet “when [women] have higher levels of education,” a study by the International Center for Research on Women observes, they “are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their own communities.”
And while education is not a new term, the word “empowerment” has gotten increasingly popular. Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” According to Rebecca Tiessen in “Everwhere/nowhere: Gender Mainstreaming in Development Agencies,” “the term ‘empowerment’ has gained increased popularity in the development literature and among NGOs, research institutions, and UN agencies alike. In fact, empowerment embodies a transition from top-down planning to participatory processes that enable individuals to be active agents of their own development.”
Yet empowerment is not something a teacher can impart on his or her students. As some development NGOs have recognized, education needs to be accompanied by efforts to develop self-esteem to help girls see past the inferiorizing power structures within their societies. It’s not enough to know calculus. It’s more important to know that you’re worth more than your ability to mother a child. In fact, there are people who lack extensive education yet are still empowered.
Are Some Girls Born Empowered?
According to the World Bank, empowerment means to “enhance the capacity of an individual or group to make purposive choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.” As an op-ed in the New York Times critiques, empowerment has “turned into a theory that applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich.”
If empowerment is a goal for marginalized girls, are girls with resources and access to education already empowered? Has my own privilege—my access to education and sense of freedom—made me automatically empowered? If the answer is yes, than empowerment as a goal is just as gendered as other language in top-down development planning.
But I’m a critical optimist. I believe that empowerment has good intentions, that, absent criticism, can become another way to inferiorize girls born into difficult circumstances. Instead of focusing on outside factors in society—such as patriarchal norms, lack of access to resources, or a poor education system—empowerment means realizing and believing in the power that lies within. Girls’ empowerment is a necessity everywhere, regardless of present challenges and hardships. And girls with privilege are born with no more inner strength than girls without.
Take my own empowerment, for instance. Empowerment helps people gain control over their lives, and there have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I didn’t have control of my life. But I leaned on friends and family who made me feel empowered again. Indeed, many loved ones in my life helped me see myself as a leader as opposed to a future mother. One positive influence in particular was B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and specifically my chapter, Ahavah.
Leadership, Self-Esteem, Vulnerability
While being really into your Jewish youth group sounds cool, brace yourself--I’m about to make it sound even cooler. Ahavah was known as the chapter that didn’t hang out with boys. At dances we would sway awkwardly in our own circle. On Saturday nights we slept over in each other’s basements doing arts and crafts, talking about how we inspire one another, getting ridiculously into themes, and doing ceremonies with candles. Once a year there was Lifetimes, where the graduating high school seniors would talk for hours about their lives in Ahavah, to sappy music and burning candles that had been passed down for years.
We also had Good and Welfare in Ahavah, where, once everyone was in their sleeping bags, we would turn off the lights and take turns venting. The five categories we vented about were—school, friends, BBG, boys (most of us weren’t really at the point where we could identify heteronormativity), and family. During the “boys” section in Good and Welfare, I would make up five to eight boyfriends that I was dramatically juggling. My insecurities about not being popular or dateable became funny, not belittling. I think I learned to be vulnerable in Ahavah. I learned that even if I was the only one dressed up as Mimi from Rent, or even if I planned an event that fell flat on its face, I could still be valued, and a leader.
As Amy Schumer says in at the end of her book The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo “beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength… I’m proud of this ability to laugh at myself—even if everyone can see my tears, just like they can see my dumb, senseless, wack, lame lower back tattoo.” I agree with Amy Schumer. Vulnerability lies at the core of the self-esteem that all girls need to think of themselves as leaders. Our societies will never be perfect, and we will never be fully empowered. But knowing our obstacles in society, and knowing ourselves, enables us to empower others in the meantime.
Towards Collaboration, Not Competition
Empowerment has been criticized as focusing on “entrepreneurship and individual self-reliance, rather than on co-operation to challenge power structures which subordinate women (or other marginalised groups).” But in my experience, the core of empowerment lies in being vulnerable and building a community. And sometimes, all it takes to empower someone else is asking her the right questions and trying to understand her answer.
Peace Corps, like my view of empowerment, is not competitive; there is no formal way to evaluate volunteers or measure their progress against one another. As I mentioned in my first blog post, Peace Corps Volunteers have learned to define their value more by their relationships, rather than their productivity.
Yes, Peace Corps Morocco has kept track of numbers for the White House fact sheet—“the Peace Corps Let Girls Learn fund has supported over 200 projects, with more than 200 in the pipeline.” At the same time, Peace Corps Volunteers are not being held to formal productivity standards. This makes the fluid mission of girls’ empowerment a more realistic aim for volunteers. A girl’s sense of empowerment can’t be measured, just like a Volunteer’s impact can’t be measured, just like our own levels of empowerment can’t be measured.
Whether you’re a girl living in the U.S., who needs courage to express her true gender, a girl seeking to escape from domestic violence in Pakistan, or a girl seeking better education in Morocco, empowerment means having the agency to define your individual, community, and institutional value from within. It is something that has the potential to make domestic and international development goals more collaborative and less competitive.
It’s true—I have no idea what it’s like to face social, cultural, economic, and physical challenges to pursuing an education. But I know all too well what it’s like to be a girl with fluctuating self-esteem. And it has been support, not competition that pushes me forward.