It was six months ago, and a small visitor had arrived at the doorway of our village hospital in northwest Bangladesh. She had walked a long way, and she needed help. Under her tiny clothes was a very round belly; her head was wrapped in a faded blue scarf. She was in labour, and she was nervous because it was her first pregnancy. She was twelve years old.

Her son would be born many hours later, but he would not live for long. He was malnourished like his mother, who had been married a year earlier to a man her parents chose. She was sad that her son had died, but relieved too. She was lucky to have made it through the birth alive. She was twelve years old.

October 11 marked the first International Day of the Girl. It was a brief moment dedicated to recognising the importance of having and upholding rights for girls around the world. Extracted from the categories of Women and Children, it invited us to celebrate and protect childhood, especially for girls.

Why girls in particular? Sadly, the story of the twelve year old mother, who came to our NGO’s health care centre married and malnourished, is not an exceptional case.

10 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year. In Bangladesh, for example, a staggering two-thirds of girls marry before 18. 150 million girls under 18 have experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence, and pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19.

We need the International Day of the Girl (and a lot of hard work in between) to make sure people know about the challenges facing girls. But, how do we move from awareness to change?

At the moment, the girl movement is led by the catchy cries of the “girl effect”, whose campaign rests on the notion that if you invest in a girl, then “she will do the rest,” pulling herself, her family, her community, and her country out of poverty. It’s a promising claim, and one that has garnered plenty of awareness for the cause of girls across the world. Its aims have been amplified and expanded by conversations such as Plan International’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign or the One Just World Forum’s “Empower a Girl, Change the World” event in September.

In these and other discussions around changing conditions for girls around the world, ‘empowerment’ is a frequently used word. Difficult to define and even harder to measure, the word’s meaning has almost become lost with overuse, and is often used synonymously with education. In other words, Educate a Girl, End Poverty.

The importance of education as a tool of empowerment is undeniable. Certainly, it’s promising that big improvements have been made in girls’ access to education. In South Asia, for example, the region’s total number of out-of-school girls dropped from 23 million girls in 1999 to 9.5 million in 2008.

But, enrolment alone does not equal empowerment, and neither does education. I wonder if the girl that I met – the twelve year old mother – would have lived a significantly different and ‘empowered’ life with an education. As it stands, she might have gone to primary school. I didn’t ask. In her village, where it’s socially inappropriate for women to work outside the home, would she ever have been able to use her education for economic empowerment? In a community that respects mothers and married women more than childless and single women, it is little wonder that she got married and became pregnant.

There was another young woman from the same village who I met in my first months in Bangladesh. I had asked her what she wanted to be when she finished school and she proudly told me she was going to be a doctor. She’d almost finished her final exams. Months later when I saw her again, she was proud to have graduated and was now focused on her mother’s mission to find her a husband. Becoming a doctor was off the cards because her family didn’t want her to move to Dhaka alone, and they couldn’t afford to pay for it either.

Education, while important, is not a silver bullet. Building schools doesn’t build a pathway to empowerment anymore than tweeting about gender equality does. Both are just steps along a very long and windy path.

Andrea Cornwall, from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, supports the idea that our current approaches to empowerment are too simplistic. She writes that they’re closer to ‘empowerment lite’, stating, “It’s high time to ask whether and how development’s adoption of the term ‘empowerment’ has offered women anything that they can use to empower themselves”.

Cornwall argues that existing strategies for gender empowerment still don’t do enough to tackle the structural inequities of our society. While she talks about women, it’s an idea worth considering for girls.

Even if we manage to provide a quality and safe education that gives a girl the skills and opportunities she needs for an ‘empowered’ existence, where will she use those skills? How will she seize those opportunities if society doesn’t recognise her empowerment?

If, after she graduates, she can’t get a job where she can use her knowledge, if she can’t earn a fair wage for what she does, if she can’t choose marriage and raise a family on her own terms, has education really empowered her?

Perhaps because empowerment is difficult to define and measure, there is a tendency to equate tools for empowerment (like education) with empowerment itself, and while education offers a good tool, it’s far from the only solution.

Can empowering a girl change the world? Sure. But, it’s a big job, and our strategies have to be multi-faceted and adaptive. Empowering a girl with education needs to occur alongside activities that ensure her the legal rights and social status to embrace and practice that empowerment for the rest of her life. Importantly, empowerment for girls has to take place alongside empowerment for all children and all women.

As such, this is not just a question for the development community; it’s one that the feminist movement has been stuck on for some time. The big sister of girl power – seeking gender equality for women – is still struggling to find the answers in both rich and poor countries.

Recent news events, from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s self-defense against misogyny, the murder of Jill Meagher, and U.S Senator Todd Akin’s comments over “legitimate rape”, show just how far we are from a society that truly values empowered women, let alone empowered girls.

Achieving equality is much harder than raising awareness, but it’s great that girls are on the agenda. Let’s keep them there, and make sure that their empowerment is something that lasts.

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