How Local Women Leaders Can Unlock Girl Power

We have reached a critical juncture in the global movement to empower girls. The strategic choices we make in the next decade will determine whether we realize historic advances or whether our movement stalls and even moves backward. This is especially true when it comes to the forgotten plight of rural girls. Just about every challenge faced by girls around the world—from early marriage to inadequate access to education—is exacerbated in rural communities.

Enroll us in schools, provide skills acquisition, provide basic amenities (hospitals, electricity, water) so as to help us live our lives better and easier.

—Adolescent girl, 13 years, Misheri, Nigeria
Barriers are unique to specific environments, communities, and cultures. We need to do much more than tweak old models. What we need now, more than ever, are bold and unconventional approaches.
 
If we look back on lessons learned from the last few decades, we find countless examples of the international community failing to understand the unique context of rural environments. When a water contamination crisis threatened rural villages in Bangladesh, global actors came up with a communication campaign to inform villagers which wells were contaminated and which contained safe drinking water. Contaminated wells were painted red and uncontaminated wells were painted green. The campaign ended up having tragic, unintended consequences. People living in “red well” villages became stigmatized. Men were unable to find work, and young women were perceived as undesirable for marriage. As a result, rates of prostitution and human trafficking went up. Desperate and frustrated, villagers ultimately took to repainting the red wells green, triggering a drastic increase in water poisoning and contamination-related deaths.
The cost of violence against women worldwide
Alyse Nelson talks about the high cost to GDP of gender-based violence at the Council’s Women and Global Development Forum on April 6, 2018, in Chicago.
More often than not, development failures like this one happen because we impose outside solutions without considering local contexts. We’ve prized theory over practice and bypassed local leaders instead of partnering with them. This oversight has been especially damaging in rural communities. As a result, the most vulnerable have been left behind. Rural girls have been largely neglected in global efforts, and we’ve seen very little progress on the particular barriers they face.

If we want to jump-start progress for rural girls, we need to shift our focus. Lasting solutions for rural communities need to be locally sourced and locally led.
 
Vital Voices has been investing in local women leaders since 1997. We search the world for leaders with a proven ability to overcome social, economic, and political barriers to progress. Each woman has deep roots in her community. She’s connected and credible; she’s able to communicate national and even international laws in ways that resonate and affect change at the local level. Most importantly, she uses culture to shift culture, because she knows that lasting change isn’t imposed, it develops from within.

If we want to jump-start progress for rural girls, we need to shift our focus. Lasting solutions for rural communities need to be locally sourced and locally led.

The single most important learning we’ve gained from 21 years of programming is that locally designed, locally implemented solutions are ultimately the only way to realize change. If we take this learning to heart, we will see tremendous results for rural girls in diverse communities around the world.
 
Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is proof of that. In Malawi’s Dedza District, Kachindamoto is singlehandedly reversing harmful cultural practices that keep rural girls out of school.

In Malawi’s Dedza District, Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is singlehandedly reversing harmful cultural practices that keep rural girls out of school.

Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto is proof of that. In Malawi’s Dedza District, Kachindamoto is singlehandedly reversing harmful cultural practices that keep rural girls out of school.

Dedza District sits between Mozambique and Lake Malawi and is home to 900,000 people. Half of Malawi’s population lives under the poverty line, and the average family in Dedza lives on US$11 a month. Even though a 2015 law set a minimum age of 18 years for marriage, the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world: one in two girls is married by the time she is 18. For poor families, early marriage is a way to ease their economic burden. It’s also an age-old custom that many consider a cultural rite.

Kachindamoto never expected to become one of Malawi’s senior chiefs. Even though she has chieftain blood, she is also the youngest of 12 siblings. She was content living in the small city of Zomba and working as a secretary at the local college. But when she received a call informing her that she’d been made senior chief, she packed her bags and headed home to Monkey Bay.
 
She wore traditional red robes and set out to meet her people. In those first days, Kachindamoto met countless girls who were also wives and mothers. Most had dropped out of school. They told her that some girls are beaten by their husbands and others die giving birth. “I said: ‘No, this is too much. I must do something,’” said Kachindamoto.

She decided to summon all village headmen, local church leaders, and NGO representatives. She told those gathered that she wanted all underage marriages to be terminated immediately. Further, she mandated that all village headmen sign and enforce an agreement to abolish child marriage and annul existing marriages. Anyone refusing to comply would be stripped of his position; and she kept her word. Kachindamoto dismissed seven village headmen, two of whom were women, when they wouldn’t comply. When they returned to say they’d annulled all child marriages, she gave back their titles.
 
The senior chief started going door to door, talking to parents. She built coalitions and passed by-laws that prohibit early marriage and sexual initiation customs. She has developed a network of “secret mothers and secret fathers” who keep an eye on other parents, making sure no one pulls their girls out of school.
 
Kachindamoto is trying to transform a nation and its culture around girls, and she’s starting locally with Dedza. She has faced severe resistance, including death threats and harassment. But she is unfazed. She knows that change will take time, and she refuses to back down. “If girls are educated, they can be and have whatever they want,” she said.

In the last six years, Kachindamoto has annulled 2,049 child marriages. Her example has inspired other Malawian senior chiefs to follow her lead. She has been successful because she developed a local solution to a local issue. She is proof that the key to empowering rural girls is to invest in local leaders and enhance their capacity to affect positive change.
 
We can deliver real results for rural girls if we mobilize global actors around locally sourced solutions. If we tap into local female leaders’ enormous potential, we can unlock the power of rural girls to transform their families, communities, and our world.
© 2018 THE CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS