Should we give up on girls? Or how misrepresenting evidence can set back gender equality

Earlier this week I argued on here for men to be brought into discussions and policy-making on gender and development. I did not expect to be arguing just two days later that women should not be neglected in such debates. But an article on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog this morning (h/t Claire Melamed for the link) has forced me temporarily to switch sides – my brothers will have to survive without me for a while.

The article is titled, ‘Will the ‘girl effect’ really help to combat poverty?’ The sub-heading reads: ‘Many development organisations see empowering girls – and enabling them to delay childbearing – as a powerful means to tackle poverty, but the evidence so far doesn’t bear this out.’

In this ADD world, where many people have time only for headlines, I wonder how many readers (or how many of the thousands who read a short link to the piece on Twitter) will see this and move on, sighing about another massive waste of money and time and wondering when the world will finally realise that aid doesn’t work.

Those who take the time to read the full article are less likely to go away with such thoughts. For it’s not really about empowering girls at all, but about one relatively minor aspect of empowering girls – delaying pregnancy. ‘Time will tell,’ the author, Ofra Koffman, writes with foreboding, ‘whether the “girl effect” will become one of those promising interventions that turn out to be more of a myth than a panacea.’ But her argument addresses only part of this question, and even this is based on flimsy evidence. For example, Ms Koffman uses the fact that adolescent fertility is not much higher in Rwanda than in the United States to show that the links between teenage pregnancy and economic development are weak. The obvious flaw in this case is that adolescent fertility in the US today tells us nothing about its effect on development because the US is a developed country. A comparison with youth fertility when the US was developing would have been more pertinent, but even then there may have been confounding factors two or three centuries ago that muddied the picture.

That disadvantaged women in the UK who delay pregnancy are no better off than their peers is a slightly stronger argument against policies to reduce adolescent fertility (although again the relevance of the UK to, say, Burkina Faso is debatable), but what the article entirely omits to mention is that such policies are very far from the central plank of efforts to empower women and girls. Sanitation, healthcare, microfinance and, most importantly, education have received at least as much attention and resources, but all these are absent from the Guardian piece.

Their omission is not surprising, for including them would fatally undermine the argument that women’s empowerment is a waste of time. Girls’ education, for example, has multiple positive impacts on their and their families’ lives, from health improvements for women and their children (see here, here and here for evidence from developing countries), to improvements in their own and their countries’ economic circumstances (see here and here). Girl Effect, the Nike-sponsored program that this article references, acknowledges that there are many ways to achieve its goal of strengthening women’s status. The writer implies that adolescent fertility is all such programs focus on, but the Girl Effect website highlights the importance of education, healthcare, and HIV prevention, and DFID (also referenced), the World Bank and other development agencies, as well as many of the developing-country governments that bear the ultimate responsibility for educating their people, are fully aware that the benefits of girls’ schooling go far beyond delayed pregnancy.

Now I may be overly harsh in criticising the author of this piece, who might not have written the title and the sub-head herself. But between them, she and the Guardian have done women and girls a disservice. Efforts to improve women’s lives have transformed developed societies – it would be a shame if such ill thought-through articles denied developing countries the same opportunity.