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Girl Rising Leaders Reflect on Sobering UNDP Report

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Today, bias against women is as entrenched as it was a decade ago and gender equality progress has gone into reverse, according to the Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Nine out of 10 people of all genders have a bias against women, a figure unchanged from data collected more than a decade ago.Published by the UN in June, the study found that half of people in 80 countries believe men make better political leaders, 40% believe men are better business executives and a quarter believe it is justified for men to beat their wives.These figures, from data collected between 2017 and 2022, were largely unchanged from the previous GSNI report.

Question: Are you surprised by the data?

Christina: If you had asked me 10 years ago if we would see progress in gender equity, my answer would have been an unequivocal “yes.” At that time the momentum for gender equity was strong and I was seeing firsthand the global response to the Girl Rising film. But today we are falling short on the Sustainable Development Goals for gender equity and for the goals in other areas as well. We’ve seen political backlash against feminist movements such as #MeToo and Ni Una Menos. Many political leaders are digging their heels in against women’s rights.The pandemic had a devastating impact on women around the world, with spikes in domestic violence and women leaving the workforce in record numbers.

Still, I am outraged by these numbers - that 25% of the world thinks it’s okay for a man to beat his wife, and that 90% hold at least one bias against women is deeply troubling. My outrage stems from working closely with women. Women from all over the world, who have overcome tremendous odds to achieve leadership positions - Rukia Sebit, and Dr. Winnie Kiiru in Kenya; Jigyasa Labroo in India, Hilda Flavia Nakabuye and Aida Namukose from Uganda, Shabana Basij-Rasik from Afghanistan and the list goes on and on. Thousands of fiercely intelligent, creative and generous problem-solvers who also happen to be wonderful human beings.

These UNDP findings highlight the urgent need to keep fighting for women’s rights, going beyond“preaching to the choir” and promoting a new kind of leadership. And the stakes are high. It’s not only a matter of human rights and ethics. The fact that the report comes from the UN’s Development Programme emphasizes the significance of these biases. These biases hurt development. They perpetuate poverty. They worsen conflict.

Nidhi: Christina, I share your outrage, but it's important to recognize that we’ve also witnessed how attitudes and biases against women can change. I’ve had countless candid conversations with teachers, both men and women, who have come to realize biases they were previously unaware of and now understand how these attitudes have hindered girls' progress. Boys and parents have also shown the capacity for change.

I’ve seen change both within the development sector and with my own family. There's an acknowledgment now, of holding space for women and ensuring they have platforms to share their experiences. Closer home, there's now a deeper understanding of the impact of stereotypes. I’ve watched how my brother is raising his young son, sharing stories of both girls and boys who are "superheroes", with gender-neutral toys, and feminist stories. What we have today is a marked change from what we had a generation ago.

I’ve also seen clear and measurable progress in tackling gender bias within the communities where we operate. But on a global scale, setbacks are evident. Women's rights are being eroded in various parts of the world, including the US and India where we live, and perhaps most alarmingly in Afghanistan and Iran. Dangerous movements against gender equality are gaining traction, and women continue to be vastly underrepresented in leadership positions. Christina, you and I both have discussed the need to challenge ourselves, to continually evolve our thinking and efforts based on trends and data.

Question: Why do you think gender bias remains so stubbornly entrenched?

Christina: Too often, leadership is thought of as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another’s loss. I think conservative movements worldwide working against gender equity have used an effective tactic of grouping women's rights with other contentious issues, framing them as threats to the "traditional family" and traditional gender roles. This tactic allows them to launch attacks against any progress made in women's rights.

That’s why we absolutely must involve men and boys in the movement for gender equity. Rights for women and girls do not come at the expense of men, but rather leads to a better future for everyone. Men and boys are hurt by these biases and norms too. That’s where storytelling plays a pivotal role, helping to change perceptions, challenge the traditional notions of leadership, and change the zero-sum mindset.

Nidhi: The gender rights movements over the last ten years have been pivotal in calling attention to issues that have been often brushed aside. Whether through social media campaigns or street demonstrations, these movements have shed light on the harsh barriers women still face. I think gender bias remains entrenched because these norms and beliefs are ingrained at an early age and reinforced over a lifetime. Even though women are breaking the glass ceiling, taking on new roles and speaking out for themselves, many in society see these achievements as exceptions. The generalized idea that a woman’s primary role is within her family and the household is a deep-seated belief which stalls progress on women’s rights.

Some statistics from India are especially telling. The India Oxfam Discrimination Report shows that women spend six times more time on household chores than men. The UNDP report shows that 80% of Indian men and 70% of Indian women believe that men have more rights to jobs than women. That’s how deeply entrenched these beliefs are here. So in one sense, the work we are doing is radical.

Question: What approaches has Girl Rising used in changing hearts and minds and tackling deep-seated biases have been most effective?

Nidhi: Storytelling has always been at the heart of our work to challenge norms and shift mindsets. Right at the time the UNDP report was released to the public, Christina and I were reviewing data from our survey of program partners, which overwhelmingly emphasized how our partners value the storytelling part of our program to create change, and deeply engage students, teachers, and parents. We’ve seen how screenings of the Girl Rising film and a discussion thereafter can seed ideas and thoughts in the minds of adolescents, educators, parents and entire communities. Mary, an adolescent living in Kibera in Nairobi, has been so deeply inspired by Ruksana’s commitment to her art and drawings that she has also pursued several creative interests. Mary’s determination, stirred by a film screening of Ruksana’s story, led her to develop coding skills, something that seemed impossible in the Kibera Settlement where learners are severely underserved. There are examples of boys here in India who stood up for their sister’s rights after watching Azmera’s story, from the Girl Rising film. Storytelling can spark change that can have lasting impact on not just one but many interlinked lives and realities.

Christina: Absolutely, storytelling is at our core, not only the stories that the Girl Rising team creates, but stories created by young people who participate in our programs. We feel an urgency to support young people, to amplify their voices, hone their storytelling skills to become true change agents. It's their voices and their visions of the future that we want to shine a spotlight on. It's time to give them the mic. They have this incredible moral clarity about what's fair and equitable, and they have innovative and workable ideas for their communities and the world they want to create and live in. So, including storytelling skills and supporting storytelling projects is becoming core to our educational programs and remains at the heart of the Future Rising Fellowship.

Question: What are some of the bright spots?

Nidhi: I was recently in a training workshop with peer leaders where their enthusiasm, their understanding of gender equity, and their commitment to enhancing knowledge and skills of those around them was so palpable! I think the bright spots remain the adolescents who can truly pave the way for a generation that is self-reliant and confident. Adolescents not only share their learning with their peers but also with their parents which I think is a fascinating bright spot! The example of Priyanka from Alwar comes to mind. As part of our program, she acquired a new vocabulary to express her feelings and had been practicing in Girl Rising sessions. When talking with her mother, asking how she felt seeing Priyanka participate in the program, Priyanka offered a list of words from her newly acquired vocabulary for her mother to pick from. Seeing an adolescent help her mother, who is more likely to have followed traditional roles, break away from it is truly special!

Christina: I agree. The bright spots are the young women we work with every day. The Future Rising Fellows - Mercy Wajiku Kamonjo and Hilda Flavia Nakabuye who spoke at the United Nations this year; Julieta Martinez who as a teenager founded Tremendas, an organization that trains girls to lead social change and was part of a delegation to write articles in the new Chilean Constitution; Leticia TItuana in Ecuador who founded Warmi STEM to connect Indigenous young women like herself, to careers in STEM. Today, women are participating in higher numbers than ever in the workforce but they are missing at leadership levels in business and in government. That must change! Young leaders need resources, networks, opportunities, mentoring and role models. At Girl Rising we are mobilizing all of our resources to support young leaders, and we are encouraging every individual to do the same. Mentor young women, make spaces for them to learn, experiment, and grow.

Question: That sounds like a call to action. What else can individuals who support gender equity do to make a difference?

Christina: There are so many ways to make a difference. First, use your platform. If you have influence, use it to amplify the voices of women and girls. Share their stories, advocate for their rights, and promote gender equality in your sphere of influence.

Invest in change. Support organizations and initiatives within your circle of sphere of influence that are working towards gender equity. Contribute your resources, whether financial, technical, or network-based, to support women and girls and create opportunities for them to thrive.

One of the most rewarding ways to take action is to mentor or sponsor young women in the workplace. Offer mentorship and sponsorship to talented women and girls. Provide guidance, share your expertise, and create opportunities for them to grow and advance in their careers.

Nidhi: I would also add that all of us can actively challenge biases and stereotypes - and also tune into your own biases. All of us in some way or other have been impacted by traditional ideas of gender. We need to become aware of them and actively challenge them.

We can all also consider gender equity in the way we vote! And find ways to use your connections and influence to advocate for policies that promote gender equity and dismantle discriminatory practices, in their communities, and at the national level.

Christina and I, as leaders of an organization, even a relatively small one, also recognize what we can do in the workplace to promote an inclusive workplace, fair compensation, and work-life balance. For anyone in a position of leadership in an organization, there are countless ways to create an environment that supports women and their career trajectories.


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