Yes, girls are children - but not to everyone (or, "pedantic white male privilege at its best")

October 11th is International Day of the Girl Child - 

- though many reference it simply as International Day of the Girl. A dear friend and colleague of mine recently shared a link to an article discussing what the author considered to be the problematic or unnecessary use of the word "child" coupled with "girl" within the international development community. In the article, the author, Brendan Rigby, argues that we should drop the word "child" from the general discourse around girls and girls' rights, for reasons ranging from the fact that it is a "compound noun" (oh the grammatical horror!) to the (incorrect) assumption that it is simply unnecessary. Brendan also openly states that he doesn't really understand why the word "child" was ever included in the phrase to begin with, and that it might even be discriminatory against boys. (Ahem)

To this point, he writes:

"Although this might be a ship too far, is the term “girl child” not a form of discrimination? Boys will be boys, apparently. There is no “boy child.” We do not need to be reminded that boys are children, but for some reason, we are reminded that girls are children."

And further...

"The language used in international conventions and declarations is hard won and hotly contested. There must have been drafters of the Beijing Declaration who questioned the use of the term “girl child” and “girl children.” However, it slipped trough the cracks.  What was the aversion to using “girl” and “girls”? What was the frame of reference?

My best guess is the powers that be wanted to avoid any baggage that came with girl/girls. “Girl” can be used offensively and refer to women. “Cry like a girl,” “Don’t be such a girl,” “Hey, girly,” “Working girl.” But, then so too can “boy” be offensive and dismissive. The film My Girl would have been quite different if it was called My Girl Child or HBO’s Girls was called Girl Children."

I am not quite sure how much experience or insight this particular author has to offer in terms of a meaningful understanding of the issues girls face at different points in their development; judging from the general ignorance on display in this article, I would guess he doesn't have much insight at all, unfortunately. So let's break it down, shall we?

The author rightly points out that the "language used in international conventions and declarations is hard won and hotly contested". Yet he still seems totally unconvinced that the word "child" needs to be there at all, despite the fact that it likely would have been debated by numerous (actual) experts in the field before being included in the Beijing Declaration, which I guess we can say probably implies it is pretty darn important. He also seems willfully oblivious to the fact that there is likely a host of very good reasons for the use of the word "child" in conjunction with "girl" for these specific purposes. In fact, he's so put out by this situation that he's even started a petition to remove the word "child" from the official discourse around girls and their rights. Let's not even get into his misguided attempts at *guessing* the various reasons why "child" has to accompany "girl" in this context - I just don't have the patience.

Yes, girls are children - but not to everyone.

In the eyes of those around them, and in much of their lived reality, girls often exist in a nebulous space between being a child and being an adult woman. In developing countries, many girls are treated as if they are women, they are given the burdens and responsibilities of adult women, from an age as young as 10. This is not the case with boys. Boys are allowed much greater freedom in all aspects of life, while girls are often considered to be women as soon as they get their first period, and even before that often bear responsibilities similar to adult women. In a developing country context especially, girls are hugely disadvantaged because of gender discrimination, facing a massive onslaught of barriers and challenges that are simply not comparable to the situation of boys, including high rates of rape, sexual violence, denial of rights, teen pregnancy and HIV - just to name a few. During puberty, as girls begin to grow breasts and their bodies develop, they are seen and treated differently, and are victimized and exploited at higher rates for different reasons, including sexual violence and human trafficking, even though they are, in fact, still children

The author also references child brides in his attempts to try to suss out why we keep saying "child" when we talk about girls, further writing:

"One Twitter user suggests that it is a link to child marriage; to make clear that child brides are not women upon marriage. I can see the logic here, but the majority of the world’s girls are not child brides." 

Okay. The "majority" of girls around the world are not child brides - but 15 million of them are. 15 million. That's one child being married off every two seconds. That is 28 girls a minute. Is that not high enough of a number to warrant the use of the word "child" as a way of putting greater emphasis on the fact that these cases and situations need to be addressed as violations of CHILD rights and prevented? Maybe not in the mind of the author. For me, that's more than enough. Beyond that, however, even if this were the only reason to reference "child" in these discussions, it's completely missing the point, because the whole movement to end child marriage is not based on ensuring husbands and families know that their child brides are not "women upon marriage" - it's ensuring that (GIRL) CHILDREN ARE NOT GETTING MARRIED IN THE FIRST PLACE. Sorry (not sorry) for the all caps.

Given all of the above, the reason we say "child" and the reason it is important to continue saying child is to drive home the idea that GIRLS ARE CHILDREN, because it is necessary to do so, because girl children do not face even close to the same issues that boy children face, specifically in the context of being able to simply be a child, to grow, learn, explore, develop and build friendships - but more than that, it is to keep this concept and understanding at the forefront of everyone's mind in every discussion we have about girls. 

Back to Brendan's point - "We do not need to be reminded that boys are children, but for some reason, we are reminded that girls are children." Yes, in fact we do need to be reminded that girls are children. Because many people do not see them as such, do not treat them as such. Because we have heaps of evidence that continually demonstrates that girls face unique challenges just because they are girls, even though they are children, and because girls are not afforded the same freedoms of childhood that boys are, even though they are children, especially in the most vulnerable of situations.

Because yes, girls are children - but not to everyone.

Kwibuka 21: Rwanda Rising

This week marks 21 years since the genocide against the Tutsi began in Rwanda in 1994. Though I am not Rwandan myself, this country is my second home, my permanent home currently, and the only place in the world where I have officially lived for a long period of time other than my birth country, Canada. Thus, Rwanda is special to me and I grieve for her losses in my own way.

There is not much to say that hasn't already been said, so I will keep my thoughts brief. What I love about Rwanda is how inspired I am by the people here, who have overcome the deepest and most scarring tragedy of the past. Regardless of the controversy over political affairs and other matters, the fact remains that regular people, average people, mother, fathers, children, suffered tragically across this tiny but beautiful country. The world failed Rwanda in that time. Failed horribly. But Rwanda rose above, in spite of all the greatest odds, and continues rising today. My hope and my prayer for this incredible country is that they continue to grow and prosper for years to come, as a symbol of peace, reconciliation and meaningful democracy, and as a pillar of strength, dignity and African development that stands as a shining light of promise for other nations. Rwanda will always remember, but it will also continue to unite and renew to keep on moving forward. After all, forward, onward and upward are the only directions left to take. 

With love and hope,
Katie Carlson, Founder & CEO
Paper Crown Institute

PCI goes to Kenya!

Paper Crown Institute founder, Katie Carlson, is in Kenya for the next few days as part of a seminar with our partner, the International Federation of University Women (IFUW).  She is leading a two day "training of trainers" workshop, and teaching the gender and leadership curriculum that will be used for The Uwiceyza Project.  Women from all over East and West Africa are taking part and we are beyond excited to extend our reach across the continent.

Read more about the event here and check back soon for a personal blog entry from Katie talking about this inspiring initiative!

Women who Inspire: Week Three (English)

We all have a voice and when we choose to use it for good, powerful things can happen. Chouchou Namegabe is using her voice to combat the systematic rape and violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chouchou Namegabe's passion for journalism and radio broadcasting has become a tool for change. Namegabe grew up in the South Kivu region of the DRC and started her career as a presenter for a local radio station. As violence against women began to define the conflict in Eastern DRC, Namegabe used the radio to turn the tables.

Rape and sexual abuse have tormented the women of DRC; as reported by Namegabe, women would rather be killed. As it is throughout the world, sexual violence is highly stigmatized and victim blaming stands in the way of healing. Survivors of rape in the DRC are often cast out of families and communities. Namegabe is working to change their fate and is using media to share their stories.

In 2003, Namegabe founded the South Kivu's Women's Media Association (AFEM). She and her colleagues record and broadcast women's testimonials and have found that story telling is an important part of the healing process. The testimonials are even being used by the ICC to prosecute militia. AFEM also serves as a way to educate communities, both urban and rural, about human rights and activism.
Their objectives are:

  • To inform women of their rights and the mechanisms in place to protect those rights.
  • To encourage women's freedom of expression.
  • To fight for equal rights between men and women.
  • To fight for quantitative and qualitative gender parity in organizations and in all areas of public life.
  • To facilitate women's involvement in good governance and the brokering of lasting peace.
  • To support activities for women's development by helping them with communication and access to available media outlets.
  • To fight against all forms of sexual violence through the media.
  • To promote peace through the media (

Namegabe has also learned that finding your voice can be dangerous. She and her fellow journalist deal with death threats and backlash as they shine light in very dark places. It seems however, that Chouchou Namegabe's voice cannot be softened, and she continues to help women throughout the DRC find theirs. At Paper Crown, we envision a world where all girls and women are free to use their voice.

Women Who Inspire: Week Two (English)

Here is the second installment of women who inspire in honor of Women's History Month! 

Leymah Gbowee is proof that we all have the power to change the world. Her story begins in the West African nation of Liberia. Gbowee’s adolescent years were marked by civil war. As the First Liberian Civil War ended, she saw in her nation a need to address the lasting impacts of war. She participated in a UNICEF social work training program and began working to heal the traumatized country.

The fragile peace from the first civil war crumbled and war again broke out across Liberia, bringing with it systematic rape and recruitment of child soldiers. Gbowee continued to work on trauma-healing and became the leader of Liberia’s chapter of the Women in Peacebuilding Network. She saw that women and children fared the worst during the war, but saw this as an opportunity to bring women together to change the fate of Liberia.

“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire.” - Leymah Gbowee

Gbowee and her colleagues mobilized women across faiths, recruiting at Friday prayers and church meetings. The women of Liberia came together in nonviolent protest; they staged pray-ins and went on sex strikes, demanding high-level reconciliation. With growing pressure, talks finally began in Ghana, and Gbowee, along with hundreds of women, followed to make sure progress was actually made. They staged demonstrations while negotiations were taking place. When it seemed talks were not moving forward, the women moved inside the hotel where talks were being held. They made it clear they would not leave until an agreement was reached. Gbowee and the women of Liberia remained vigilant until the very end, with the adoption of a peace agreement marking the end of 14 years of war.

Gbowee was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and today, continues her work as an activist for peace and gender equality. A true grassroots innovator, Leymah Gbowee should inspire us all to put on our paper crown and do our little bit to change the world.

Check out Leymah Gbowee's moving TED talk here!

A Willing Heart

This is a guest submission from one of our workshop participants, Keza Latifah in Rwanda.

Every day a girl is raped. Somewhere in Pakistan, you'll find a girl with lost dreams. Here in Rwanda is a 21-year-old orphan whose parents died in the 1994 genocide.

Girls are sponges. They undergo the worst of life and are taught to suck it all in and move on. They grow with broken souls and hard corpses. They keep it all inside until destiny does them good and they die.

This is why I believe in girls' empowerment. In the Bible, God tells Adam and Eve to rule over the world. Every fish in the sea and bird in the sky, he proclaims it their territory.

This brings up a very interesting thought: has womankind also fulfilled that which was proclaimed by the maker himself? Instead, she has been taught to cover herself up and hide behind the scenes.

I want every woman in the world to know her worth, to come out of her hardware, to speak out and conquer.

I want every girl in Pakistan to be a Malala Yousafzai, every girl in Rwanda to stand up and DO something. Every man in the world to understand a woman's worth instead of raping her. And the only way this can happen is to start with us young ladies: what we call Girl Empowerment.

This is something my grandmother told me long ago and it goes to every girl in the world: Tears will dry, people will die, and sometimes you will lose hope. But life is a journey, you have nothing to lose, and eventually everyone rests in the tomb. Therefore, choose to make your journey the best, for nothing is impossible to a willing heart.


Girl for Girl: The Future of a Nation

By Angela Rangira Uwase, Gashora Girls Academy, 17 years old

Being able to assertively challenge someone in a debate is not considered "feminine"; that's too much confidence for a girl. I have been mocked by my cousins attributing that to being raised as the only girl in four boys. I have loved being part of a debate because then I get to challenge what I have been raised to think, not that I don't have my insecurities. And I am not the only one; almost every girl out there has been raised to believe in their own inadequacy in comparison to boys. I am not sure if this has to do with the past of Rwanda but it most definitely has a lot to do with the future of this nation.

I have believed for awhile now that the best thing you can do for someone is to help them find their voice. I believe that is why girls from single-sex schools are more successful in this country. They are given the freedom to become who they want to be once in an environment where they are not constantly stereotyped and compared to their brothers. That is what the government thinks, as well. They keep creating policies to empower a girl, in education, in families and all that. However, they forget that we are in a mixed society and these policies on their own stand no chance of changing the mindset people have had for centuries. Only 25% of women were able to pass interviews for jobs in the public sector, whereas men secured the remaining 75%. Girls remain weak!

I believe that my government has done enough. I will take the lead in helping to change the lives of the million girls in my country. I want my friends to be the future Oprah Winfrey or Wangari Mathai. I do not want the biggest fear of my classmates to be ending up without a husband and facing the shame of society because they are bold and independent. I want it to occur to that girl I met in the village that she can be a pilot, an engineer or a doctor, not just a teacher or a matron. I want to see my cousin sister become the future president of my country and I want to see all these girls dream big and grow to achieve those big dreams. And I want to be responsible for those things because I fought for the empowerment of girls at this point in time. Great things are yet to come.


Philanthropy is the market for love

I feel compelled to share this fascinating TED talk from Dan Pallotta about the importance of the non-profit sector in addressing social needs for which there is no existing business market. Dan states "philanthropy is the market for love" and makes a very strong case for why our relationship with the non-profit sector and our attitudes about giving and charity our actually undermining the causes we all care deeply about. Enjoy!



2015: Will we evolve... or just revolve?

With the start of 2015 and being just a few days now into the new year, I have been thinking a lot about change, growth, and progress. I have been thinking about evolution. The word "evolution" came to mind recently out of the blue, and for some reason, it lingered in my mind for many days. To evolve means to "develop gradually" or to "develop by a process to a different adaptive state or condition". I started thinking about what it means to evolve socially, about ways in which societies around the world have evolved over time to really leave behind practices, habits and beliefs that were harmful, and to move on from them in such a way where what was once considered common, normal or good in some way is now considered abnormal, undesirable and wrong. Take racism, for example. If we look at racism around the world, we can see that we are far from eradicating it completely. Despite this frustrating reality, different societies have in fact evolved over time to the point where racist beliefs, actions and behaviours are now more commonly looked upon with distaste or disgust at the very least, to downright social outrage and active protest at the other end of the spectrum. Racist attitudes and actions that would have been expected, encouraged and even celebrated 50 years ago are now more widely and openly attacked, denounced and deconstructed in a manner that is helping societies to evolve

When I was in South Africa in 2011 conducting field research for my thesis, I attended a conference for African women leaders looking at how to get more women into positions of political leadership and put "women's issues" more prominently on the table. One panel discussion still stands out in my mind, and one particular moment within that discussion is a moment that I come back to over and over again, despite how much time has passed since that day. A South African woman from the Commission for Gender Equality asked the crowded room "Will we be here next year still discussing the same issues? I don't want to be here next year or in five years still talking about the same problems, the same battles, and just talking and talking, as we've done all these years before. We need to change the way we look at all of these issues, and how we approach them. For instance, why do we expect women in politics to look out for women and support women, more so than what we expect from male politicians? Why is it that we don't ask for more from men in politics, that we don't hold them to a higher standard to support women and look out for women, instead of putting most of the pressure on women politicians, to not only get ahead in politics but to prioritize women?"

I really couldn't agree more.

The question begs to be asked: are we just revolving, when what we really want is to be evolving?

To revolve is "to proceed or occur in a round or cycle; to come around again in the process of time; to recur". Year after year, at so many gender conferences, panel discussions and workshops, I hear the same jargon and the same "shoulds" and "coulds" being passed back and forth over and over again, and sadly, I don't see enough innovation or evolution. Many colleagues of mine seem to have had the same experience.

The choices we make every day, the time and money we invest in them, and how we approach important issues of social justice are what decide for us whether we will continually revolve around the same issues in the same way year after year, or whether we evolve, to the point where we can look back over our shoulders and feel confident knowing we have, in a major and remarkable way, largely left behind harmful norms and planted real seeds of change. It takes time for social problems like racism or gender inequality to be fully and completely eliminated, but evolution is a process that occurs over time, and at some point within that process there is a noticeable shift in mindsets and beliefs about the issue at hand. Personally, I am seeking evolution, but when it comes to gender justice globally, I sometimes fear that we are still mostly revolving.

UN Women recently put together a timeline, "Gender Equality: 2014 in Review", looking at the gains we've made around the world for women's rights and freedoms over the last year, and while it is encouraging, for me it is still not enough. Social change takes time and commitment and a heck of a lot of work, and we still have a long way to go before we can say that racism or racist tendencies are truly eliminated from every heart and mind around the world, and every structure and institution. The same goes for gender inequality. But the reason that Paper Crown came into existence in the first place is because I have admittedly become obsessed with the concept of social evolution, have seen first hand how community engagement can lead to evolution, and in my experience, the only way to get there is to start from the grassroots and work your way up. Talk, share, discuss, educate, debate, and permanently change mindsets and behaviours for the better. Or in other words: learn, act, evolve. 

“What’s in a gap? The Global Gender Gap Index versus Real Life”

The news has been exploding in development circles around the world: Rwanda clocks in at 7th in the world on the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), compiled by the World Economic Forum (WEF). As a gender specialist who has been living and working in Rwanda permanently for the last three years, this certainly surprised me. Immediately I knew this index required deeper investigation, particularly with regard to the data used to rank each country’s gender “gap”. While Rwanda has made considerable progress with regard to gender equality, I could not find a reasonable explanation for how it could outrank other far more progressive countries that didn’t even make it to the top 10. So, I investigated!

First things first: what does the GGGI actually measure? The WEF clearly states that it does not aim to assess “women’s empowerment” but rather “gender equality”. (If someone can explain to me what the difference is, on a meaningful level, I would be happy to know.) But let’s set that aside for now. Essentially the GGGI uses three underlying concepts to construct the index: gaps instead of levels, outcomes rather than inputs, and gender equality rather than women’s empowerment. They do this so that countries across income levels can be more appropriately compared; for example, measuring gaps between men and women in access to education is more suitable when comparing a country like Uganda to Norway, rather than looking at levels of overall educational attainment or resources at the national level. In addition, countries where women surpass men in certain areas are not given extra points for “empowerment” or having more women than men in certain rankings, thus rewarding “equality” rather than empowerment.

The underlying concept that is most problematic from a gender perspective is outcomes over inputs. The WEF claims that they measure only outcomes, meaning they do not look at “specific policies, rights, culture or customs” as these are considered “inputs”. If inputs lead to outcomes, should we not also consider these? If we wanted to look at quality of life, inputs must be considered, particularly culture and customs. The GGGI is made up of four subindexes: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The indicators for each of these four categories seem rather weak to begin with. For example, if we look at “educational attainment”, enrolment in school at different levels is the primary indicator used to measure such a “gap”; if we are looking at outcomes, why would we not use school completion to measure such a gap? Enrolment would seem to be an input, rather than an outcome, that is if we were really interested in quality of life. In Rwanda, girls are nearly on par with boys for school enrolment, but for completion they lag significantly behind. Expectations in the home for domestic chores often leave girls exhausted with little time for their studies and falling behind in their assignments. Teenage pregnancy is also an epidemic that is yet to be addressed, and leads to girls dropping out of school completely and rarely returning. So why are we looking at enrolment if we really want to assess an outcome that reflects equality?

For Rwanda, having 64% of women in parliament is certainly an achievement to be recognized that demonstrates how capable and competent Rwandan women are, but should we expect them to automatically be looking out for women’s interests, simply because they are women? Outside of each individual woman in office, what is the impact? When a man is voted into office, people do not rally around expecting him to take special care or interest in “men’s issues”, so why do we expect this from women? Maternity leave in Rwanda was recently reduced from 3 months to just 6 weeks, all while there were 64% women sitting in parliament. The majority of women in Rwanda are still living in considerable poverty and are not particularly active politically beyond voting; one of the greatest challenges reported by Rwandan women working on these issues locally is finding women at the village, sector and district level that have the self confidence and educational capacity to stand up and get involved in politics within their own communities. And these two examples are merely the beginning.

The secondary school girls I work with consistently tell me about the many issues they face as girls in Rwanda, experiencing low levels of self confidence and self esteem, being afraid to speak their minds especially in public, and often feeling threatened or intimidated by their male counterparts (and these are the significantly more privileged girls in Rwanda, relatively speaking.) So if the next generation of Rwanda is still experiencing such persistent gender inequality, how is it that the GGGI can claim the gender “gap” in Rwanda is so small it ranks as 7th in the world?

At the end of the day, one burning question begs to be answered: what’s in a gap?

What are we supposed to take away from this report? Are mere numbers or “gaps” enough to reflect true gender equality? I think not. My problem with such an index is that it seems to completely miss the ultimate goal of gender equality, which is not just for women to have the same life expectancy of men or to have a high number of female parliamentarians in office. It is to achieve a meaningful improvement in the everyday quality of life of every woman and girl, founded on respect, dignity, recognition and social justice. The GGGI focuses narrowly on indicators that, in my view and experience, do no accurately reflect real life at all, and yet many people in both development circles and beyond will refer to this index as if it stands to make a powerful statement about women’s place in Rwanda and elsewhere. While I cannot speak for other countries, as a woman who spent a great deal of her life in Canada, and a considerable amount of time as a citizen of Rwanda researching, living, talking and working directly with Rwandan women and girls, I cannot reasonably accept the claim that my quality of life in Canada as a woman could be ranked 19th on the GGGI, while Rwanda sits at 7th place. Some might say that the GGGI doesn’t measure quality of life, but rather “gaps”, to which I must reply: if the so-called “gap” does not reflect real life for the average girl or woman in Rwanda, what is the point of even measuring it in the first place?

While I feel strongly patriotic about Rwanda as my second home, I am also capable of rational consideration accompanied by a healthy dose of humility which allows me to openly and fairly state that Rwanda still has a very long way to go. Reports like the GGGI may serve to give us a broad general overview of gender “gaps” the world over, but they do not reflect real life for the majority of women in places like Rwanda, and that is what makes them dangerous to rely on or reference as supposedly robust statements about gender equality in the 21st century. We would not want to give the false impression that work on gender equality in Rwanda is now a suddenly less pressing priority because it is 7th on the GGGI, as this would not serve to benefit anyone, particularly Rwandan girls.

As an international community, and as global citizens, we must never lose sight of the focus and meaning of gender equality, the ultimate goal of gender equality, the very reason any of us bother to do this work at home or abroad and to fight for this cause. We are not seeking equality in numbers alone; we are seeking meaningful change in the everyday lives of the average woman or girl the world over, change that leads to a happier, healthier quality of life, and not just a seat in a political office.