I had the privilege of chairing sessions on “Empower a Girl, Transform a Community” during the conference on Women Economic Empowerment in Edinburgh, Scotland in November 2019.
Poverty, violence, cultural norms and traditions, as well as mental and health conditions, oppress millions of girls around the world. Even in parts of the world where poverty is not endemic, the girl-child is always disadvantaged in some way or the other. Gender inequality, discriminatory social norms, cultural taboos, and the lack of essential services often cause girls’ and women’s menstrual health and hygiene needs to go unmet. Adolescent girls may face stigma, harassment and social exclusion during menstruation.
Due to all these challenges, women and girls encounter some form of discrimination at every stage in their career path. These challenges critically reduce their bargaining power for employment and economic empowerment. Fortunately, all is not lost. I had the privilege of leading a panel discussion among great women, who are taking the lead to make a difference in the young women’s lives by providing education, mentoring, and stability as anchors and role models.
Ashaba Faridah, a pilot from Uganda, is empowering girls through mentoring, training, and taking on the menstrual health challenges girls face in their communities. Ashaba and her support team provide sanitary towels and instruction on how to manage their menstrual health and hygiene. Menstrual health and hygiene interventions provide an entry point for other transformative programmes, such as sexual and reproductive health education and life skills development designed to strengthen self-efficacy and negotiating skills. In combination, these efforts improve the school attendance, learning, confidence, and the futures of these girls.
Fascinatingly, Helene Roger is also Ugandan by birth. Helene is making a difference in Scotland, by providing financial literacy for young girls and boys. The lack of financial education can result in personal indebtedness and financial crises later in life. Studies have shown that lack of financial intelligence leads to adverse effects of unemployment, low wage employment, medical conditions, and family disruptions. Often times people continue to make poor financial decisions that may well affect them for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Catriona Stewart, an autistic woman, is assisting women and girls with autism in Scotland. I found it personally touching for her to discuss publicly the challenges she faces as an autistic person and her motivation for supporting women and girls. Well done Dr. Stewart! Many autistic children have struggled with social interaction and communication. Early diagnosis is crucial in aiding autistic girls to access support. As girls get older and social norms and friendships become more sophisticated, they may find it harder to relate to others – so it is vital to recognise the symptoms. Autistic persons who understand their condition may be better able to survive and thrive in their communities.
Last but not least, we had the privilege of hear from Ji Yi who is herself a young woman making a difference in young women’s lives in China by breaking the cultural norms. She uses music to empower girls to exert influence and control over their own lives and future.
When a woman takes on a project to empower a young girl or a woman, this goes a long way in strengthening the voice of women and helps them exercise control of their lives. There is nothing more beautiful. These women, Helene, Asahaba, Ji, Catriona and others, are truly fulfilling the famous saying by Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the world.”