On the Map: Because I am a Girl, I Call Bullshit

The 411 Initiative for Change and Plan Canada are touring Canada to screen a new documentary film for students in middle and high school that features exceptional girls and women who have a desire to create social change and inspire others to make a difference as well. The interviews are intended to generate discussion among participants about girls’ issues–locally and globally–and motivate (or guilt?) people to get involved in activities that empower girls’ and women living in countries all over the world to live self-determined lives. The weight of the issues are tempered by performances by hip-hop emcees Masia One and Eternia, as well as a mock talk show format hosted by broadcast journalist Nana Aba Duncan. These are young people, after all.

That said, I’m wary of campaigns that simply ask people to give money, buy shit, and sign some petition or other in order to help some ostensibly helpless population (particularly when that population is women in the Global South) because it feels more like an attempt to assuage one’s own guilt and posit an ethnocentric Western ideal than to truly alleviate the conditions that necessitate girls’ and women’s exploitation. Sustainable change must go beyond this type of cosmetic individualist activism; it must be indigenously generated and led, systemic in nature, and address the root causes of oppression. Despite its good intentions, so far as I can tell, the Because I Am A Girl campaign fails to meet any of these three criteria.

Because I Am A Girl isn’t the only campaign whose stated goals don’t entirely align with its practice. Just two weeks ago the much-lauded Kiva was exposed by the New York Times for its failure to be completely forthcoming about its methods of moneylending. (Full disclosure: I have given money to Kiva in the past.) The purpose of an organization that is truly dedicated to social justice is to put itself out of business, and to ensure they are doing just that, it is important for feminists and others who advocate for progressive change to think beyond the surface of these glammed up, NGO-run, girl power campaigns and cultivate a critical way of examining these organizations’ functioning in the short and long term.

by Mandy Van Deven
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21 Comments Have Been Posted

I have seen posters for this

I have seen posters for this campaign all over the subway system that I use everyday, asking, as you said, to donate $5 and "make a difference". Aside from the obligatory motivational pitch, there's no other information as to where the money is going or how you can actually, you know, do something besides send your money and twiddle your thumbs. I'm assuming the advertising, as is the entire organization itself, is a watered down and simplified method of volunteering for busy, day-to-day people (or Plan Canada's interpretion of it, anyway). It's a simple way for people to feel like they're doing something for female empowerment. But as you wrote, I'm not necessarily sure that's the right idea to appraoch it.

if that's the case, then...

...do something else that's better!

I understand being critical, especially when someone brushes up against a topic that is close to your heart but doesn't address it precisely the way you wish it would, but unless it's actively doing harm instead of just not being your ideal version of whatever it is, why not just go ahead and create your ideal version of whatever it is instead of speaking against something that is at least oriented in the right direction?

I'm drawing a distinction in forms of criticism between "That's a start, but here are some ways in which it could be made more effective," and "What those people are doing is stupid, and I'm going to sit here and continue to not address those issues at ALL in my life until someone comes up with something PERFECT."

(I'm not saying that you or the OP don't do anything at all, it's a more general observation of what happens in cases like this.)

i do think...

it is actively harmful to uncritically perpetuate an ethnocentric Western ideal and position oneself as a paternalistic savior while teaching girls to do the same.

"why not just go ahead and create your ideal version of whatever it is instead of speaking against something that is at least oriented in the right direction?"

Both are necessary, and I do both: I critique and I organize.

"it is actively harmful to

"it is actively harmful to uncritically perpetuate an ethnocentric Western ideal and position oneself as a paternalistic savior while teaching girls to do the same."

Yeah, totally! I don't see where that's happening in this case, though.

The trailer strikes me as being for a doc that speaks to girls in Canada about being a girl in Canada.

That can be lots of things, and maybe it doesn't do justice to all of them, but I'm not catching the paternalistic saviourizing angle.


<blockquote>...do something else that's better!

I understand being critical, especially when someone brushes up against a topic that is close to your heart but doesn't address it precisely the way you wish it would, but unless it's actively doing harm instead of just not being your ideal version of whatever it is, why not just go ahead and create your ideal version of whatever it is instead of speaking against something that is at least oriented in the right direction?</blockquote>

You say this as if it's an accessible option to everyone. It's not. There could be financial reasons, reasons to do with time available, amount of spoons, any number of things can make it inaccessible.

Mixed feelings

Full disclosure: Eternia's a friend of mine, and Masia is a friend-of-some-friends, so I can't claim to approach this entirely without bias. BUT, ...

I don't think it's fair to criticize this initiative for not being what it can't be. There's no way for these particular people to be doing something indigenous to the global south instead of a tour of Canadian schools by Canadian women. They can't do what they do from within a systematic approach that addresses the root causes of oppression. What they can do is put these ideas in front of more people who will, in their lives, interact with the outcroppings of the root causes of oppression that we get to interact with in our relatively privileged milieu.

The alternative to these people doing this is not these people doing what you wish was happening instead, because part of what you're wishing for is for other people to be doing it. The alternative to these people doing this is for these people to do nothing at all with regard to the issues in question. And I do think that giving students in our culture the idea that these problems exist is better than not doing so.

I haven't seen the presentation, but I have faith in the people involved. Again, that's my bias showing, but the rest of it isn't. I don't think?

the alternative is doing something different

it's not a dichotomy of do this or do nothing. the question becomes: what could they be doing 1) in their own country to alleviate the suffering of girls and women in the Global South (because global capitalism, for one, is a huge factor in the exploitation of women and girls on individual and institutional levels) and 2) to support the efforts of indigenous movements in the Global South?


Right, okay, exactly! The alternative is to do something different.

Any ideas? The two things you listed are objectives rather than actions. Can you turn them into actions?

And then do them? It'd probably be more productive than just positing that someone somewhere should be doing something better than this other project that you aren't doing.

Not that just because a person's doing a thing means that it's worth doing or beyond criticism... I'm just not seeing how this right here is going to help, so far.

you're on the right track

Yes, they are figuring out their own shit--just like the rest of us. And a part of that process is to consider the criticism of what they're doing and whether or not their strategy is the most effective (or effective at all) to meet their stated goals.

The Unfair Sex

As a passionate and cynical feminist, I often look at other women and scoff at their purported dedication to the cause. Then I usually feel guilty, because there are a number of women doing more than I am, able to contribute better ideas and make better examples for young women who are likely scoffing at me. While I agree that the whole "wrap it up in an 'edgy' bow and panhandle for the cause" shtick is tired, indeed, the commentor who said it's better than nothing is right. If we can get people talking about global feminism, if we can encourage people to give time or money for an endeavor that benefits women who need it, who cares if it's tacky or even somewhat ineffectual in the long run? Maybe this particular project will not succeed on its own terms, but it could motivate and mobilize others who will be successful. One of the most consistent criticisms I hear of feminism and feminists is that we are humorless and critical of everything-- men, society, but especially each other. Why prove the misogynists right by shitting on a well intentioned if hamfisted call to action? Can't we humor a Sister?

i guess i'll have to keep saying this until i'm blue in the face

Saying one should be critical of Thing X and not Thing Y only communicates the value the speaker has for Thing X is greater than the value the speaker has for Thing Y. Unfortunately, to those for whom Thing Y is equally as valuable as Thing X, ignoring Thing Y in favor of Thing X is not a luxury one possesses.

Being critical and being humorless are quite different conditions; however, if one refuses to be critical out of fear that one will be accused of being humorless then one is playing right into the desires of those in power who make such (false) accusations.

I know it's a difficult position to be in. I live it daily, and yes, we all do have to pick our battles. This is simply one I pick for myself. If you're not in a space to pick it for yourself, don't.

I think this type of

I think this type of critique is very necessary from a historical perspective given the double-edged sword that women's activism has often been most palatable when framed in moral rather than political terms. The problem with framing activism in moral rather than political terms, suggesting that we, as women, should "help" those with less privilege is that we never really challenge the system that gives us privilege and denies it to others. Lots of problematic constructions of ourselves as helpers and the other as needing help are left intact. The documentary could inspire young girls to take action in their own communities, or it could reinforce an ethnocentric paternalistic view of women in the Global South as needing "us." I haven't seen this documentary, but I think it's reasonable to bring that kind of critical eye to it.

As a side note, my personal bend is that I come to this as a person working in fund development for a locally-based nonprofit addressing homelessness and poverty. We work mostly with women, not because our aim is feminist, but becomes women with children are more likely to live in poverty and experience homelessness in the U.S. I'm interested/concerned/curious about the increased focus on international poverty and inequality among women and what this says about people's understanding of inequality, particularly economic inequality, in their own cities and towns. Is the focus on international poverty and inequality influenced by latent prejudices about the deserving and undeserving poor? This is not an attempt to undermine those who work or organize around issues of international poverty or women's inequality, but to raise critical questions about what motivates the public to care and if there are some problematic ideas that really need to be addressed.

yes! yes! yes!

I fully agree with everything you're saying. The moral rather than political framing is also problematic when used in reference to women's rights because it plays on and reinforces essentialist notions of gender. This isn't entirely the case, as the film does point to logical reasons why the viewer should care about girls' and women's empowerment (or rather, their <i>financial</i> empowerment since other types of social and political equality are overlooked--yet another tactical flaw).

What you've said about the prejudices about the deserving and undeserving poor and motivation for ending poverty is right on. Canadian women and girls in poverty face similar social, political, and economic inequalities that lead to a lack of opportunity and contribute to the maintenance of the feminization of poverty as as faced by girls and women in the Global South. Indeed, the conditions are very different (and that difference should not be overlooked or downplayed), but the problem is the same. Eschewing poverty in one's own country in order to address poverty of "those people" who live "over there" raises questions about the unequal placement of responsibility for one's own country's particular condition of poverty, the unequal value of addressing the issues locally, and the lack of seeing the two as connected--particularly for orgs that are run by Westerners yet work in the Global South.

Because I Am A Girl, I see your BS call, and raise the stakes...

Hey Mandy!

I writing to you with regard to your article "On the Map: Because I am a Girl, I Call Bullshit". I can certainly understand your concerns, but I love to give you information on my actual involvement in this campaign and reasons why I have participated in the school tours.

The 411 Initiative for Change creates arts education programing for various issues that concern young people, and allows them to learn about these things directly in their high schools. I remember growing up watching cheesy presentations by idealists that were out of touch with the youth, and I strongly support the format and authenticity by which The 411 creates their programming. As a full time artist and record label owner (MERDEKA Group), I feel it is important to take time out, and ground myself with REAL LIFE outside of the music industry, communicate a positive message back to young people and plant seeds that will allow them to grow into independent thinkers such as yourself. www.whatsthe411.ca

The current tour has nothing to do with specifically showcasing the "new documentary film for students" and I would love to invite you to come and check out one of the school shows. I think you will be pleasantly surprised that the programming is contrary to what is mentioned in your article. My role in the show is to have a frank discussion with the girls about images of women in Mainstream Media, and encouraging them (as someone that sees behind the scenes in Hollywood) to always question the swill of images they are fed. At no point in the program do I encourage anyone to purchase or donate money. Rather I express that words and spreading a positive message are very powerful means to get involved in something they believe in. I also encourage them to do what they love as a vehicle to help others and themselves.

The tours give back to me by letting me stay connected to the reality of issues facing so many young women today. I also have the opportunity to work both in SE Asia and Jamaica with women at a grass roots level, and often teach them computer and language skills. On the North American end, I do my best to garner sponsorship and support toward donations of technology tools to the schools and communities I work in. The purpose of this tour is not to champion my personal interests and causes however, but rather to encourage a very often apathetic generation out of their shells.

It is perhaps my own oversight for not delving deeper with Plan Canada as an organization and the larger scope of their campaign, but I can certainly say that their "Because I Am A Girl" or "POWER: Because I Am a Girl" posters that have been seen in bus stops, television etc. offer a nicer balance to the usual landscape of half naked, over sexualized and malnourished women we see in our usual urban peripheral.

Back to Hollywood for me after the tour. For now, everyday is beautiful meeting and interacting with these young women. If you would like further information, or to reach out feel free anytime!


one love

glad to 'meet' you

Hi Masia-

Thank you for your reply. It should be clarified that this post is a critique of what is, imho, an ineffective and counter-intuitive strategy for addressing female poverty in the Global South, which--from your description--is not necessarily what you are engaged in. The Because I Am A Girl site gives the impression that the school tour, the documentary, and the fundraising strategy are all connected, and if this is not the case, then I claim that misunderstanding as my own.

Like you, I want people to be active in social justice work; however, I also want the activities they are engaged in to be meaningful and go beyond simply producing a feelgood mentality for the activist; I want their actions to actually create sustainable social change. It seems we both agree on that, though it is possible we disagree about what is and is not effective in the long-term and on a macro level.

I would love to come see one of your school shows, but as I live in Kolkata, it's not financially feasible for me to make the trip. However, if you find yourself in this city while doing grassroots work in South Asia, I'd love to meet up for tea.


Because I am a Girl

Hi Mandy, I represent Plan Canada and would like to clarify some issues under discussion.

Because I am a Girl is a global campaign to advocate for girls’ rights. It was launched in 2007 by Plan International, one of the world’s oldest and largest international development NGOs. We work in 65 countries, with 8,000 staff and 60,000 volunteers. Canadians would have known us as Foster Parents Plan of Canada until we simplified our name to Plan Canada in 2006. Gender issues go to the core of all our work, be it health, education, water and sanitation or food security.

As for our Because I am a Girl campaign in Canada, our aim is to create awareness and engage people, and to inspire discussion. It seems to be working. The current tour of Ontario high schools aims to get young people engaged. Ditto for the documentary film we made, which interviewed girls across Canada.

Please allow me to address the three concerns you present.

(1) You fear we are driven by western guilt and ethnocentric values. In fact, all of our overseas programming is driven by communities at the grassroots level. We work in full partnership with communities to design and implement projects. Western values do not come into play. Our guiding principles for both our development work and the Because I am a Girl campaign are based on the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have human rights lawyers and gender experts on staff in Canada and across the international organization. Last month, we chaired a technical roundtable in Ottawa attended by key Canadian policy makers and influencers.
(2) You worry we do not support sustainable solutions. Though we do some emergency relief work (e.g. food distribution for WFP), our prime focus is long-term and sustainable programming. We build capacity at the community and government levels so when we leave a community after a few years, investments continue to pay off.
(3) You suggest we do not address root causes. We are a right-based organization. This approach ensures that we go right to the causes of problems when we work on creating solutions.

We can only provide so much information on a subway poster. For anyone interested in getting more information, you can read the first three annual reports on the state of the world’s girls at:


Or they can contact me directly.

Steven Theobald
Manager, media and public relations

premises are important

So many of these statements are built on premises that range from patently false to just plain silly. The most obvious places where your premises don't match your stated goals are in the assertions that "Western values do not come into play"--which would be quite a feat for a Canadian organization, particularly one that uses a <a href="http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/tharoor.html">human rights framework</a>--and that you think working with hierarchical, top-down organizations (like the UN) and policymakers is grassroots. One look at your <a href="http://plancanada.ca/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=1935">Board of Directors</a> and <a href="http://plancanada.ca/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=1936">Issue Experts</a> lets one know that the structure of your organization mimics the social structures that facilitate poverty and inequality (the same goes for <a href="http://plan-international.org/about-plan/who-is-who">Plan International's staff</a>), as the power brokers in the organization are hardly representative of the community you claim to serve and is not indigenously led (as you also allege) by the community members themselves.

And then there's the matter of finances. I'd be really interested to know what percentage of the income generated from the Because I Am A Girl campaign actually makes it into the hands of the individual girls and women featured in your fundraising videos and sponsorship stories (as opposed to other NGOs) and how much of that money is funneled back into your own organization to cover "overhead expenses" and other self-sustaining activities. I wasn't able to find this information on your website.

Also, the reports (that I'm sure weren't researched by the communities that are spoken about in the report itself) you cite simply discuss the state of women and girls in the world. They don't prove the long-term effectiveness or sustainability of your program model, so your claims lack concrete evidence to back them up. In fact, given that other similarly functioning organizations have been using this model for years and the <a href="http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats">rates of global poverty have actually <i>increased</i></a> and the rate of progress in other areas (education/literary, infant mortality, life expectancy) have declined, I'd say that is a pretty good indicator that this model is ineffective.

The reality is this: capitalism necessitates poverty in order to sustain itself. Global capitalism exploits people living in the Global South to the benefit of those living in the Global North. Unless an organization's structure and method of functioning is such that it changes the institutionalized social, political, and economic systems that are sustained by poverty then it will always fail to meet its stated goals.

this comment made my day

this comment made my day

If treating women as human

If treating women as human beings equal to men is "Western and ethnocentric," then go ahead and call me Western and ethnocentric. The fact that many non-Western cultures are sexist to the core is something many trendy Western radicals are unwilling or unable to admit, and getting at the "root cause" of sexism often means addressing age old traditions. This is something that many women in developing countries in fact are trying to do, and the sad irony is that many so-called Western feminists, in denouncing the spreading of Western-style values, are indirectly propping up traditional sexism in third world countries. This is why we have come to the absurd situation in which a male conservative is often more likely to denounce honour killings than a female socialist.

Sleezy microcredit scheme needs to be called out

I have been dying to find some critique of this group. My feminist spider sense went bezerk when I saw the posters and i was not sure why... then I went to their website. Of course, microcredit.

If you don`t know what is wrong with this type of "help" please read

On the Map: Because I am a Girl, I Call Bullshit | Bitch Media

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