Friday, June 15, 2012

Because They Are Girls

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO/President

I attended the most remarkable session at a conference organized this week by the US bilateral aid agency, USAID. The conference's objective was not very different from other such events in DC: to explore new frontiers in international development.
The presidents of Malawi, Liberia and Kosovo
join former presidents of Ireland and New Zealand.
Photo courtesy of Georgetown University
But this session, covering the topic "Development, Democracy, and Global Security in the 21st Century," stood out, not so much for the broad topics it covered but for the collection of individuals convened to cover these topics: Joyce Banda, newly elected President of Malawi, Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the newly re-elected President of Liberia, as well as Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and today Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. For a woman of my generation, the fact that there are today enough current or former female heads of state/government to populate such a panel was in itself inspiring.
But also interesting was that several of these women were leading nations coming out of conflict - governing in highly complex, contentious, high threat and high stress environments, which are not usually associated with female leadership. After some discussion of the challenges involved in fostering economic growth and inclusive governance in such environments, the conversation turned to the special nature of women as leaders.

The panelists noted that democracy is something that needs to be forged from the ground up, creating inclusive dynamics community by community. It is rarely, if ever, imposed successfully from above. The panelists agreed that women leaders bring a certain crucial sensitivity and empathy to this endeavor and to the task of creating inclusive national politics.This empathy is a key element in helping to forge consensus and unity, even as tough choices are being made. One of them called it "the difference between ruling and leading." Another noted that this is really the "principle of stewardship," of looking at your job as one that seeks to nurture and mold not dictate and impose. And all agreed that because women are more likely to be the care-givers, they are particularly attuned to social protection issues and particularly connected to how the economy, on a day to day basis, really affects people's lives.

It was a fascinating exchange. Are women better equipped to lead a country; are they particularly effective in highly stressed and socially complex environments, such as what we see in fragile/post-conflict states? I leave that for scholars to investigate. The world has certainly seen ineffective, highly divisive and dysfunctional female national leaders.

But what is true is that women do bring a different perspective and skills that can be, and have been, important ingredients in the prosperity of a family, and this translates into positive effects at the community and the village level. We know this from our own gender research in Plan supporting the Because I am a Girl campaign. Countries that do not to provide girls and women the opportunity to thrive and prosper are the poorer (literally and not just figuratively) for doing so. For me, that panel was a reminder of why this focus on girls matters. Enabling girls to find their voice, and have opportunities to thrive, grow and contribute to their societies, is not just a human rights issue. It is a global prosperity issue.

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