I work on women’s land and resource rights globally, and when I was first asked to help to design a program that would benefit girls—and strengthen girls’ land rights in India—I said, “ok” because the asker was a donor, but I thought, “Right. Women rarely have real rights to land, what does it even mean for girls to have rights to land?” We focused on educating economically poor girls about their legal rights to inherit land, forming girls’ groups, and teaching girls some basic skills to help them earn some money, like growing mushrooms under their beds or planting something in a tiny patch of unused land near their house. We also tried to talk with community members (including boys) about girls’ rights to inherit land. I fell in love with the program, with the incredibly dedicated and brilliant young Indian staff, with the man in charge of the West Bengal office who gave up a secure job with the government to do something real, and of course with the girls I met.
Here are a few things to ponder—things I only understood as we moved forward in the project. First, there’s the definition of “girl.” Is a girl a girl until she’s married (which could be at 14 or earlier), or is she a girl until her 18th birthday? Does it matter? Yes, married girls have very different expectations and obligations than unmarried girls. They are unlikely to attend a girls’ group. Then we have the question of what we can expect from the program? Projects like this don’t last for years and years, so we couldn’t measure how many girls inherited their parents’ or husbands’ land because of our intervention. We settled on the idea that if girls were economically valuable to their natal family, because they could grow and sell vegetables, maybe they could stay in school longer and remain unmarried longer. We had some success; we bought some girls some time.
I also learned (re-learned?) a tough lesson. Behavior change takes real time, real effort, and real money. And frankly, as much as we want change for girls, most philanthropists want a big return for their investment within a reasonable period of time. This grassroots work can be too slow, too discouraging. I get it. We started out wanting communities to commit to allowing girls to stay in school and unmarried until they were 18. You know what we ended up considering a huge achievement? One community committed to celebrating girls’ birthdays for the first time. Only boys’ birthdays had been celebrated in that community until that commitment. A few years into this work. We were ecstatic.
The thing is, to reach girls you have to go to the girls. They are in their houses, they are in the brick factories, they are walking to get water and wood. You have to meet their parents. You have to help them figure out how they are going to have time to come to your meeting when they have chores and school. You have to convince parents that their daughters should stay in school and not marry the older men, who don’t require dowry, even though those parents do not have enough money to buy food for every family member.
This work does not have to be done girl by girl, but projects are successful when they stay around to shepherd communities through a shift in their thinking, when they pay for enough good local staff to be successful. Eventually, the reward will be huge, but the work that started the change may not even be noticed.
Recently the call for systemic change has gotten an audience again. And we need that in this country and all over the world. But we still need the work that is done in communities; we still need to have the community conversations that lead to the “ah-hah” moment when a community commits to valuing its most vulnerable.
Other Resources related to Girl’s Rights and International Day of the Girl.