The Girl Effect and dignity

by Roxanne Krystalli

A friend recently asked me if I think I am lucky in life. If I consider myself fortunate. I am still contemplating my answer, but I had an immediate response about my childhood. I told him that as a girl, I was definitely one of the lucky ones.

My fortune lay in the fact that I was told throughout my childhood that I could accomplish anything I set my mind on. I was told to dream big and that the sky was the limit; I was supported and encouraged and cheered on and gently nudged towards developing, articulating and pursuing dreams. I have lost that faith at a few points along the way, but I was raised to believe in myself and in the power of possibility. Lots has been written about helicopter parenting, overprotectiveness and the dangers of projecting parental ambition and expectations on children. And yes, I have suffered from some of that. But I was also deeply fortunate in knowing I was loved and safe and in being raised to believe that I could make my mark on the world.

Meanwhile, in other childhoods…:¬†¬†“Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” One girl in 7 in developing countries marries before the age of 18. ¬†According to the International Center for Research on Women, “a survey in India found that girls who married before age 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.” Medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. [all statistics courtesy of the Girl Effect]

When I was 13, I was not thinking about marriage as an imminent and realistic possibility in my life. At 15, my life was not threatened by pregnancy. I was schooled — too schooled, according to some. I was one of the fortunate girls.

As a gender-related development specialist in conflict and post-conflict zones, and as a storyteller, I have often had to think about how we tell the stories of the less fortunate. “Less fortunate” — is that the right term? There is a type of awareness-raising imagery and messaging that the aid community has coined ‘poverty pornography’. The Global Poverty Project writes:

For years, it has been commonplace for poverty-driven NGOs to utilise images of malnourished children as well as desolate and despondent people in their campaigns to raise awareness and funding. This technique, known in development circles as “poverty pornography”, communicates a hopeless situation of disrepair. These images suggest that those who live below subsistence lead a pitiful and wretched existence. Yet while there are countless stories of heartbreak and defeat amongst the extreme poor, does this one-sided appeal to our sympathies properly reflect the whole story of those suffering?

How do we preserve the dignity of women and girls while also doing justice to their needs, plights and the challenges they have faced? How do we not rob women and girls of their agency? How do we not further enhance their victimization? Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters has helped me navigate my way to some of the answers. She cites research by Rachel Naomi Remen, who distinguishes between the terms and concepts of helping, fixing and serving. Remen identifies the following qualities with serving:

  • Perceiving person as “whole”, which I see and trust
  • Mutuality. We can only service that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.
  • Experience of mystery, surrender and awe (as opposed to experience of mastery and expertise, or of strength)
  • Basis of healing, not of curing.

To some, these distinctions may seem like semantics and may, thus, appear irrelevant in the scheme of the global effort to strengthen/empower/your-word-of-choice women and girls. To others, it may seem paralyzing: If we are going to walk into a minefield when our intentions are good and we are trying to raise awareness for a ‘good cause’, why speak up at all?

To me, it is a call to experience the mystery, surrender and awe that Remen identifies in others’ life stories. I have fallen into stereotypes when narrating my work with women and girls, and I have misspoken and mischaracterized and unintentionally victimized as well. But I will continue to speak up because I believe in the importance of these stories. In speaking up, I will seek to remain mindful of whose story I am telling, of the circumstances that breathed that life story into being, and of the power, magic and consequences of storytelling.


This post is part of the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign.You may read other posts or share your own reflection on the Girl Effect here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #girleffect.

Roxanne Krystalli is a regular contributor to Gypsy Girls Guide.

  • I love the questions you raise Roxanne. “How do we not rob women and girls of their agency?” Something I kept in my heart as I wrote and that you articulated so well. How to see them whole, how to see and transmit the richness of their souls. Beautiful, dear.

  • I’ve been thinking about this blog post for most of the morning. How do we preserve the dignity of women and girls? In my opinion, we do this by allowing them to tell their own story, in their own words. Providing them with the means to spread their story to the rest of the world. You are right that those of us who have not lived it can, even though we mean well, get it all wrong. Of course, this method of getting their stories out will be hard to achieve, but not impossible.

  • Roxanne, you do raise some very thoughtful questions. Even in my 50’s, and with the luck I’ve had, I still need to be inspired, heard, recognized. Anita, from India, who went on a hunger strike, in order to demand an education, inspired me. The girls who are born “less fortunate” (in some ways) still have everything inside of them to make it. The least we can do is tell their stories, and let them know they are recognized and heard.

  • Thank you very much — your support and encouragement in this campaign are fueling my faith in humanity.

    Marjory, I really enjoyed reading your own thoughts on the Girl Effect. Preserving the integrity and wholeness of women and girls is an integral part of accurately and honestly telling their stories.

    Riayn, yes — allowing them to tell their own story is certainly part of the answer. I reflected on this exact question, in fact, at a post over at Critical Peace: I think it is necessary — even desirable — for us to tell stories that are not simply about our own life experience, but that requires us to contemplate the responsibilities associated with storytelling.

    Kim, like you, I do not think our need to be inspired, heard and recognized ever really goes away. On Twitter the other day, I read a post that said: “The three most romantic words in the English language: I hear you.”

  • This discussion on dignity is so important. It reminds me of when we were once asked to submit some of our microfinance related photos as a portfolio. We were trying to secure a photography related project with an organization working with microfinance consulting. The response was that our photos were “too positive” and they wanted photographers to capture more of the “misery.” On the one hand, I understand that organizations believe this is a way to raise money from potential funders. Our approach is to show the spirit and potential of the affected women, not the despair. We try to show the human similarities between target communities and potential funders so that we don’t objectify people living in poverty. I hope there are more people like you who understand this and continue storytelling in this vein.

  • I’m so glad you brought this up, Roxanne. It could be argued that the end justifies the means, but of course not that’s true. As you point out so beautifully, painting a picture of the poor, pitiful “other” supports a sense of separateness, which is ultimately what got us into this mess in the first place. I think there is an element of ego-gratification to being the knight on the white horse. Thanks for helping us guard against that archetype, and thanks for your careful and loving touch.

  • Audrey, I had the chance to look at your photographs and was struck by them. I am disturbed by the idea that an image can be too positive. I understand that you and your employers would want images to accurately reflect the conditions in which people live, but — as you said — the line between that and objectification is very thin. I admire you for capturing honesty as you saw it. Faithful storytelling that steps away from dramatization or stereotypes is difficult, but I believe it is a battle worth fighting.

    Rupa, people in development do talk all the time about the ‘knights in shining armour’ paradigm and how, unfortunately, a narrative of ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ often permeates this field. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do think intentions matter and that if we continue to educate ourselves about how we can align our impact with our intentions, we will make the positive social change we seek. Thank you, as always, for your very kind words.

  • Great post, I remember writing a post on women’s agency as well, covering a similar topic and questions. It is so easy to fall into stereotypes of poor, abused women that even we – who work in this field – can fall into it. I really love some of the qualities identified with serving — it really helps us keep in mind the meaning of serving, and how to empower without robbing of agency!

  • I cannot believe i am reading this;this is wonderful. For some time now i have felt, but have been unable to put into words those exact things that you are talking about today. My vocabulary is much smaller than yours or the commentators, so i have to commend you and each of them for giving me words for my feelings. i hope this is a beginning to a new way of helping those who need and want our help. Thank you. Thank you.

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