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Why women's movements must not forget the rest of the world

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This International Women’s Day marks a monumental moment for women. But let’s not forget any girls or women across the world, says Gayathri Butler, Ethiopia country director of charity Girl Effect.

International Women’s Day prompts those of us working towards gender equality to take stock and reflect. In our lifetimes, never have 12 months been more seminal in the gender equality movement. The Women’s Marches last January set the tone, signalling people’s single-minded determination to enshrine women’s rights as human rights.

The surfacing of sexual harassment scandals – including in the development sector – have, however, highlighted just how far we still have to go. And, movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo are now galvanising women across the globe to tackle gender discrimination once and for all. What does this mean in terms of global progress today?

It’s clear these campaigns have been incredibly valuable. They have given women in positions of power a chance to shape new behaviours and have provided three essential gifts to those with less power. Firstly, the reassurance to those facing similar abuses that they are not alone – an important end in itself to build hope. Secondly, a global platform for girls and women to use their voice to express their own grievances. Thirdly, an opportunity for those who once felt powerless to now act as a role model and be part of a collective that sets a new normal. #TimesUp and #MeToo have brought a tidal wave of global conversation and collective action around gender discrimination. This is a huge movement and a great step forward.

However, amidst all of this progress, an important question comes to mind. What about the millions of girls, in countries like the one I live in - Ethiopia - that don’t know this campaign exists? They never see it, nor do they hear about it. These girls are in as much need as their peers across the globe - if not more so.

These girls are in as much need as their peers across the globe - if not more so

Last month, a UN gender equality report revealed that there are 4.4 million more women than men living on less than $1.90 (£1.37) a day and that women and girls are most likely to miss out on the benefits of economic and social progress. Last November, the World Health Organisation also reported that gender based violence from intimate partners is significantly higher in lower income countries than more prosperous countries.

Whilst being vulnerable is not solely limited those with low income, it’s clear that poverty greatly increases a girl’s chances of being exposed to gender discrimination and decreases her chances of being able to create change in her own life.

The convening power of these campaigns has the potential to be hugely empowering for those who can be part of it. But for those who never see it, there is the risk that they become increasingly marginalised.

And that’s where programmes like the one I lead, Yegna, come in. Yegna has been addressing these challenges since its inception in 2012 just as #TimesUp and #MeToo are doing today.

The convening power of these campaigns has the potential to be hugely empowering for those who can be part of it

In Ethiopia, only one third of women have attended primary school and nearly one in four women have experienced physical violence (DHS, 2016). Social isolation is also a major problem with one in five girls reporting they have no friends.

Yegna was built on the recognition that negative social norms have a huge influence in holding girls back, and because we knew that adolescent girls in Ethiopia are becoming increasingly vulnerable with little voice and visibility to make change for themselves.

Yegna uses mass media, storytelling and role-modelling to reach millions of Ethiopian girls, helping them recognise that they are not alone in their journeys through adolescence. Through radio, TV, music, and digital channels, Yegna helps them reimagine their value, empowers them to use their voice and enables them to build the connections they need to thrive within Ethiopian society.

The stories told are designed to help girls tackle the challenges that they face today in a rapidly changing Ethiopia – like sexual violence, migration and accepted norms around masculinity. It also helps them build their skills to tackle the challenges of tomorrow as they move through the turbulence of adolescence and become adults. 

Girls face challenges like sexual violence, migration and accepted norms around masculinity.

Yegna is designed to encourage inclusion, and highlights how girls, boys and their communities can – and need to – work together to build an environment of change. Inclusion is also a key attribute of the team behind Yegna, which features some of the best female talent in Ethiopia from directors to researchers, writers to protagonists. This is no small feat when looking at the male-dominated entertainment sector.

Ultimately, just as #MeToo and #TimesUp want to create a world where women no longer face abuse in their lives, we want Yegna to promote a reality where being a teenage girl in Ethiopia is no longer a place of invisibility or shame, but a place where girls can positively connect with the world around them. A world where they are empowered to change their own lives for the better and can shape their own identify. And, crucially, we want this identity to be one that boys understand and respect, motivating them to enable and not undermine; to support, not attack.

These are ambitious goals and we can’t achieve them overnight. Global campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have given many women, particularly in the West, a platform to act and be heard but we must not forget the situation for millions of girls and women in more isolated environments, where the situation is even more precarious. While there is still a long way to go, I am hopeful that localised movements like Yegna, alongside the Hollywood backed global campaigns, are the start of an unstoppable global movement for the benefit of all women, regardless of circumstance.

Images: courtesy of Girl Effect