Historicizing the Global Girls’ Empowerment Movement

Erin Moore

In 1992, Lawrence Summers, then the chief economist of the World Bank, declared that educating girls “yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.” Summers’ argument converged with a growing consensus in the international development industry, which over the past two decades has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into transnational campaigns designed to “empower” girls – psychologically (via self-esteem), personally (via leadership training), and economically (via microloans).

My dissertation investigates the production, circulation, uptake, and transformation of global “girls’ empowerment” discourses in order to better understand how ideologies related to development, age, and gender attract resources and public support in some parts of the world and are then translated in others. My ethnographic fieldwork (2011-2013) traced the inception, training, implementation and reporting of a program designed to make cities safer for adolescent girls in the global South as it moved through NGO circuits in the UK, the US, Canada, Ethiopia and Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. This fieldwork investigated the movement of concepts related to developmental psychology, human rights, and 2nd-wave cultural feminism between households and organizations in Uganda, a former British protectorate, and western experts in international development.

In order to historicize this phenomenon, I used the SSD Summer Research Grant to consult the Audrey Richards Archives at the London School of Economics. A British sociocultural anthropologist, Audrey Richards was one of the first scholars to document girls’ initiation rites and the female transition to adulthood in East Africa in her monograph Chisungu (1956). In 1950, Richards worked as the director of the East African Institute for Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, where she oversaw the colonial state’s research apparatus. Given her work on puberty and adolescence, which she takes as a universal biological category for young women even while showing that female social maturity depends on the age cohort’s completion of initiation rites, Richards also mediated the translation of western theories of the life course in Ugandan research circles and the understanding of Ganda age rites in British scholarship.

In her fieldnotes and research papers, I found a collection of essays written by teenage students of the Gayaza Boarding School, the first missionary secondary school for girls, in the mid-1950s that expressed these young women’s attitudes toward changing gender roles and traditions in Uganda. Richards had asked a series of questions related to “The patterns of behavior for a boy and a girl which were considered important in the olden days.” Without fail, each of the forty or so essays mentions the longstanding practice of Ganda women and children’s kneeling for older men. Most of the authors agreed with the sentiments of Florence, the 17 year old daughter of a teacher, who wrote, “On my side I do not think that that behaviour is still important for the modern girls and boys.” Richards herself, however, refused to read kneeling as necessarily an inherent mark of Ganda women’s docility. In her essay titled “The ‘Position’ of Women – an anthropological view,” a paper which I also uncovered in the archives, she gave another view of Ganda women,

            Such behaviour has to be recorded by the field-worker as expressing some aspect of the model of female behaviour but in this society it seemed anomalous since Ganda women in other spheres of life behave in an almost arrogant manner, walking through Kampala like peacocks among the poorer immigrants. Ganda women can own their own land over which they have    complete control; they are mistresses of their banana gardens which men are not supposed to enter; and male visitors stand after a meal to thank their hostess formally for cooking. How pleasant if we could brain-wash Englishmen into doing the same. (1974: 5)

Papers and essays like these in the Richards’ archive brings an essential historical component to my contemporary ethnographic research: far from new, foreign interest in the changing gender roles and lives of young women has long been marked in Uganda’s ethnographic record.