Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

No more Mrs Nice Girl: How young women are taking the future into their own hands

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails, that’s what little boys are made of.

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.

As a kid, I always thought that the little boys got a pretty raw deal in that old nursery rhyme. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve started to wonder whether the little girls really have it all that much better. These images of the rough-and-tumble boy and the sweet, delicate girl are constantly pushed on young people as they grow up, from innocent nursery rhymes, to doe-eyed Disney princesses and ultra-feminine teenage idols. Girls are expected to be pleasant, above all else. Pleasant to interact with, pleasant to listen to, pleasant even to look at. “Ladylike” has come to mean docile, submissive, passive. They are expected to make the best of their situation. They are expected to know their place, and accept it gratefully. In many cultures, women are still seen as unimportant until they are old enough to marry and bear children. The pressure not to speak out, combined with the lingering attitude that the voices of young women aren’t worth listening to, has meant that historically, girls living with injustice become invisible all too easily.

Development programmes targeted towards children tend to be taken advantage of by boys, but not by girls. Women’s programmes often come too late, when girls have already left school to marry and have children. Less than two cents of every international development dollar is invested in girls. When girls are targeted, they are generally portrayed as lost souls in need of saving, not young people who need to be empowered. Even in the sphere of international development, the damsel-in-distress trope rears its ugly head.

But slowly, things are starting to change. Girls are starting to realise their potential, and view themselves as agents capable of controlling their own fates. They are shaking off the frilly shackles of niceness, raising their voices and demanding better from their world.

Two years ago, the world was shocked by the courage of Malala Yousafzai, who continued to campaign for the right to an education, despite constant threats and an eventual assassination attempt by the Taliban. On the face of it, it seems absurd that the Taliban should feel so threatened by a single adolescent girl, but to adhere to that train of thought is to underestimate just how powerful a single adolescent girl with a voice can be. Malala used her blog to outline the world that she wanted, and following her rise to fame, has helped bring that world a little closer. Malala’s shooting led to an outpouring of anger and support from the global community, and weeks later, Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill was passed. At just 16, this outspoken little girl has been recognised as one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - twice.

Malala may be the most famous young girl to change her own destiny, but she is far from being alone. With the Millenium Development Goals up for review in 2015, girls all over the world are making themselves heard, and helping to shape the world that they want to live in. The Girl Declaration, created by international development movement the Girl Effect, brings together the voices of 508 girls living in poverty across the globe. The Girl Effect, in conjunction with 25 leading development organisations, asked these girls what they needed to achieve their full potential. The resulting report makes for inspiring, if sobering reading. Girls are no longer willing to sacrifice their lives in service of their families and communities. They know exactly what they want from life and are not afraid to ask for it. They want support in education, the ownership of their own minds and bodies, and the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty they are being sucked into. The Girl Declaration functions as a policy recommendation, but more than that, it is a battle cry - a call to action. We all know that issues such as child marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation exist, but hearing young girls talk about them in their own voices really brings them to life, and turns them into issues that can no longer be pushed aside or swept under the rug. It’s easy to become desensitised to numbers and statistics when it comes to international development, but a 16 year old girl openly asking “Why do girls get raped by men? I don’t understand” is much harder to ignore. The Declaration has been publicly backed by political figures ranging from Gordon Brown to Ban Ki Moon. Girls are being placed front and centre of the development agenda, thanks to the hundreds of young women brave enough to demand more than what they’ve been dealt out.

For many girls though, these steps are too little and their results will come too late. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls aged 15 - 19 throughout the world. Nearly 50% of all sexual assaults globally are against girls under the age of 16. Only a select few are given the type of platform that Malala and the Girl Declaration girls have been, meaning that too many girls still suffer in silence. The Western world has been accused by many of using girls like Malala as poster children, creating high profile success stories to distract from how much work remains to be done. The inclusion of young women’s voices in international development policy is a massive step in the right direction, but a happy ending for the few speaking out is not enough. This inclusion is a means to an excellent end, but the temptation must be avoided to see it as an end in itself. We must remember the hundreds that these women represent, and work to effect long-lasting change in the treatment of young girls across the globe.

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