What the world needs now is girl-centered advocacy

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post here. Reposted with permission.

By Denise Dunning, Program Director, Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy & Leadership Initiative

Invest in a girl and she will change her own life and her family. Invest in girl-centered advocacy and the same girl will also change her community, her country, and maybe even the world. Creating and implementing girl-friendly laws, policies, and budgets through girl-centered advocacy is our greatest hope for large-scale, sustainable global change.

Here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the Women Deliver Conference, thousands of leaders are exploring strategies to improve global health and development, and discussions about adolescent girls are taking center stage. Following a gradual evolution of development priorities, the global community now recognizes that investing in girls is one of the most successful strategies to alleviate poverty, reduce infant and maternal mortality, and improve health and educational outcomes. The return on investment for addressing adolescent girls’ needs is proven, and the global community has finally acknowledged the importance of serving this widely marginalized population.

Yet while this focus on girls is an enormous step forward, it is not enough. Many organizations are committed to providing girls with access to education and family planning services – and yet service provision, however comprehensive, is nonetheless insufficient. Although providing girls with services and information is critical, these strategies are merely a bandaid for larger structural problems – laws, policies, and social norms that negate girls’ basic rights. Only by investing in girl-centered advocacy will we sustainably improve girls’ lives on a global scale, reduce human suffering, and achieve our broader development goals.

The Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy & Leadership Initiative (AGALI) and the United Nations Foundation have developed a girl-centered advocacy model with a proven track record of creating large-scale structural change for girls. AGALI partners with leaders in Africa and Latin America to launch girl-centered advocacy strategies that improve laws, policies, funding and programs for adolescent girls. AGALI has created a global movement of leaders advocating with and for adolescent girls – through this innovative girl-centered advocacy approach, girls play a key role in successful advocacy campaigns that respond to their own needs. Evaluations demonstrate that AGALI’s girl-centered advocacy model has led to passage and implementation of national laws and local policies that comprehensively guarantee girls’ rights – including access to education, health services, and economic opportunity, and also protection from violence, exploitation, and trafficking.

AGALI partners with the Girls’ Empowerment Network (GENET) to eradicate child marriage in Malawi. More than half of Malawian girls are married before age 18, and many girls are married off as young as age 12. GENET co-founders Faith Phiri and Joyce Mkandawire became AGALI Fellows and launched a girl-led advocacy campaign in 2011 to end child marriage in southern Malawi. With support from AGALI, GENET empowers adolescent girls to become leaders, advocate for their own needs, and raise their voices to transform their communities. GENET’s girl leaders map out the stories of their own lives through photography, art, and writing, and learn to use the power of their own voices and experiences to speak out about the challenges they face.

Through this girl-centered advocacy, GENET girl leaders share their stories and advocate with village chiefs and religious leaders to create bylaws that protect girls from early marriage and harmful traditional practices. Since GENET began partnering with AGALI in 2011, 22 communities have passed bylaws that outlaw child marriage and heavily penalize men who engage in the practice. “By listening to girls’ needs and helping them tell their stories, GENET is transforming social norms and practices at the village level. Since GENET began our girl-centered advocacy with AGALI, we have seen no new child marriages take place in the communities where we work,” said Phiri. GENET’s girl-led advocacy forms part of a broader national movement to end child marriage. “In collaboration with Malawi’s Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy Network, we are also advocating for the new Marriage Law, which will increase the national age of marriage from 15 to 18 years.” Malawi’s Parliament is slated to vote on the proposed law later this year.

Phiri and Mkandawire received scholarships from Women Deliver to highlight their success ending child marriage at the global conference in Malaysia, and brought with them Emmanualla Manjolo, a 13 year-old girl who is a leader in GENET’s girl-led advocacy campaign. Although this is the first time that she has traveled by plane or left her country, Manjolo is already speaking out about her own experiences and the needs of girls in her community. “I am here today on behalf of victims and those who have survived the storm of child marriage in my country, and I want to tell the whole world that girls don’t want to get married, we want to get educated and become productive and useful citizens,” Manjolo said. “Girls all over, I encourage you to be silent no more, speak against violence against girls. I strongly believe girls can change their situation by saying no to child marriage and no to abuse!”

The time has come for us all to realize that adolescent girls are not merely one of the world’s most marginalized populations – they are also one of the most powerful. And our best strategy to harness that power is through girl-centered advocacy. When we engage girls as leaders who can speak out about their own needs, girls become compelling advocates for change. Only by investing in girl-centered advocacy for laws and policies that advance girls’ rights will we move beyond the important first step of providing services to thousands of girls, and instead begin transforming the lives of millions of girls.