There is one question that repeatedly pops up when talking about More than Me with parents in West Point: “what about my son?”
Many of the girls in More than Me’s program have male siblings, and for a lot of parents this creates an obvious dilemma. We have written about why we have designed our program to focus on girls, but telling a father that, statistically, it makes more sense to send his daughter to school is not very convincing when he may have a son who also wants to attend classes. As en vogue as the Girl Effect is right now (with good reason, I think), it does raise the question that these parents are asking, what about boys?
There has already been discussion in the development world about the differing effects of micro-lending between men and women, as well as at least one well-produced parody of the girl effect. These examples, and other examinations of the increasing bias in the aid world toward serving girls, speak to the success of the marketing and research around supporting women’s rights. Investing in girls has reached mainstream status, but, as Rosemary McCarney, the head of Plan International Canada, Inc., wrote in a blog post recently, the question of whether to invest in girls rather than boys misses the point.
Any approach to seeking gender equality that paints all men and boys with a broad brush as the “problem” rather than as partners in bringing about and benefitting from solutions is misguided and will eventually backfire. As a general rule, men still hold greater power than women in political, economic and familial circles. For that reason alone, they must be part of the solution.
Investing in girls is important because it levels the educational and economic playing field. That said, adjusting social norms so that both sexes accept and embrace education for girls is equally important. A 2010 report by the International Center for Research on Women about gender and the girl effect, observes that shifting and defining traditional gender roles is extremely important during adolescence, if not before. Basically, if we do not also educate boys; if we ignore their relationship with their female peers; and if we do not strive to show both girls and boys that they can break out of traditional economic or domestic roles, then the inequality that makes investing in girls a necessity will likely remain.
More than Me is a non-profit that is focused on getting girls off the street and into school. If you are reading this blog, you have probably heard or read that phrase more than a few times. But More than Me also has boys in school.Thursday, one of the very first students to receive a scholarship from the non-profit, faces different, but no less intense, problems compared to the girls in our program. His house sits near a pool of still water, and he sleeps outside because there is not enough room for him inside. While I was in Liberia, Thursday joined me for my daily afternoon run, which, I eventually found out, was often after he spent the day selling coal. The boys in More than Me’s program are bright, promising students. Through their affiliation with us, boys like Thursday are being exposed to the idea that girls are no less capable of learning. Additionally, by having a mix of male and female field staff and volunteers, we are undermining and broadening certain assumptions about traditional gender roles and values.
When we receive the question, and it happens whether we are in West Point or Washington D.C., we do talk about the statistics, about historical inequality, and about the increased risks that many girls, especially in Liberia, face. The answer to, “what about boys?” is not, as McCarney notes, one that should leave anyone feeling neglected. Building a new Liberia is going to take a concerted and educated effort by all parties.
More than Me focuses on girls, but has boys in our program because we do believe that every child deserves an education. We also understand that it takes more than just knowing how to read and write to learn and grow. By sending girls to school we are educating their brothers and fathers. We are showing people that their daughters and sisters have more options than simply selling in the market or finding a man to take care of them. We are creating strong role models, building self-esteem, and organizing peer networks for all of the young people in our program. More than Me has never had an either/or mentality. We are all in this together.