“I’m already powerful” is one the best things my daughter has said to me. We were talking about my work as an activist and she couldn’t understand why we needed to empower girls. In my daughter’s world, surrounded by love and encouraged to be herself, girls were just as powerful as anyone else. This was not even a question for her. As she spoke I felt my heart swell with pride for this beautiful girl who is now on the cusp on womanhood and in her I see so much hope for the future. I also see her on her angry teenager days but that is a story for another blog!
The “power” conversation as I now think of it stuck in my mind and made me think about the language we use and the effect it has. Empowering girls is a mantra in the world of international development, and you hear it time and time again from conference platforms and read it in programme mission statements but what are we really saying? I now believe that all this talk of empowering girls takes away their agency and tells girls that power is something external to them. It too often presents power as something that is granted to them by someone else.
Thanks to my daughter’s innocent question I no longer want to talk about empowering girls. Every girl should feel like my daughter and recognise their innate power. Our job as parents, teachers, counsellors or aid workers is not to tell them that they are powerless and instead I want to focus on creating an environment where girls can rightly exercise their own power. I will be emphasising that the power is already theirs.
I can hear the cries already. “Oh Leyla! You are just talking semantics again.” That I was just being picky about words was a common complaint as I battled to change the language used to describe female genital mutilation (FGM) from cultural practice to child abuse and sexual assault. To me it is vital that we recognise what FGM really is which is a violent assault and the exercise of patriarchal control over women’s bodies and sexuality. Using the right language means we can properly recognise FGM as a violent crime and hold perpetrators to account. It also helps girls understand that what is being done is wrong and that they should be protected from FGM.
Feeling powerful is central to our well-being. As a psychotherapist I know how important it is to have confidence and to be able to make decisions about how we want to live without fear.
Girls and women should not have to negotiate for their rights and especially not for control of our own bodies. We should not have to be respectful of cultures that harm us, and we should be telling our girls that they are powerful. This means teaching them about their rights and their bodies, giving them confidence to express their views, to challenge orthodoxies and to follow their dreams. We must also make sure girls know how to look after themselves emotionally, physically and financially. This is at the core of the well-being training I run with young activists and it is true for all young people. We need to know and understand ourselves, and how to take care of ourselves before we can take control of our lives. That is real power.
Today we end the 16 Days of Activism for 2019 on Human Rights Day which this year celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration. Article 1 of the Declaration states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. These are still powerful words and a good reminder that we don’t give girls power. They are born with the same rights and power bestowed by those rights as every other human and our job is to make sure they are kept safe and learn the skills and tools they need to wield that power and make choices. Every girl should know her own worth and hold her destiny in her own hands.