Putting Girls Front and Center: Empower’s Girls Advisory Council Shapes a Better Future

7 min read

To fully empower girls and young women, EMpowers Country Director for India, Nisha Dhawan, tells us how EMpower – The Emerging Markets Foundation embraces  “participatory philanthropy”,  anchoring the opportunity for girls to write their own futures through their Girls Advisory Council in India.

“When we start thinking of girls as beneficiaries, we create solutions for them and remove their agency. Yet nobody is a greater expert in the lives of the girls, than girls themselves.”

Could you tell us a little about the EMpower story?

EMpower – The Emerging Markets Foundation is a global philanthropic organization that connects the resources of Emerging Markets (EM) professionals worldwide with the vitality of local organizations in emerging market countries. EMpower develops partnerships with local community-based organizations in EM countries, working to improve the lives of marginalized young people, as well as to create communities where all youth can thrive. We’ve worked with youth aged 10-24 years since 2000.

Since 2005, we’ve had a strategic focus on programs for adolescent girls that is holistic and addresses issues around education, livelihoods and health and well-being.  We work with about a hundred partners around the world, and more recently, we’ve more intentionally put into practice that it’s not enough to focus on issues for girls; they need to have a meaningful voice in terms of what kinds of programs make sense; they need to be co-creators in coming up with solutions to the issues that they face.

A 2018 baseline report of the Sustainable Development Goal Index places India in the “Aspirant” category for gender equality–the lowest of four categories in which a country can place.

Would you tell us more about the approach you take whereby girls are at the centre of your work?

We created a Girls’ Advisory Council, launched in 2018 in India. The Council is comprised of a group of adolescent girl leaders who advise on EMpower’s grantmaking strategy in India by sharing where and how we direct our funding and resources to best meet the needs of adolescent girls.

In 2017, EMpower set up a legal entity in India to be able to fundraise within India. Our Girls Advisory Council is central to our strategy, advising EMpower at key steps.

To create the Council, EMpower invited each of our adolescent girl-focused grantee partner organizations in India – from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh – to nominate one girl representative to participate. These 16 adolescent girl Council members now work hand-in-hand with the EMpower team in India, shaping our approach to  creating opportunities for adolescent girls, addressing barriers that prevent them from accessing or participating in programs, and overall increasing girls’ chances of a productive, healthy life.

Our girl-focused strategy in India for 2019-2022 has been deeply informed by their ideas. We started by asking them “what do you think programmers need to know?” Their answers  covered everything from inclusion, to working with alumni, to engaging with boys and men, all key issues that the girls believe that adults sometimes forget about. When we think of girls as “beneficiaries”, as many do, we create solutions for them and remove their agency. Yet nobody is a greater expert in the lives of the girls, than the girls themselves.

To put the girls’ ideas into action, we then put out a Request for Proposals to our India grantee partners for new projects. The girls in the Council reviewed the applications and chose the innovations they believed were most promising. Four organizations were selected by the girls to  receive a grant. Once the results from the grants came through, we asked them: “Looking at all of this, tell us what you think EMpower’s India’s grantmaking strategy should be. This is what shaped our current approach.

We hold ourselves accountable to the Girls’ Advisory Council with feedback and results. When we’re asked about our girls work in panels or conferences, we push the envelope and say, “why don’t you listen to the girls directly?” We look for opportunities to put the girls front and center, speaking at conferences and events, creating spaces for them to share their stories and their wisdom. Girls from the  Advisory Council have also interviewed staff who are being considered for a position at EMpower.

So we might say the Girls’ Advisory Council is a “reorientation” of how decisions are made by a Foundation. How else does EMpower bring girls together to be the drivers of change in their lives and in their communities? 

EMpower also developed the concept of  an Adolescent Girls’ Learning Community: with the aim of putting the reins of programs into the hands of the girls. It’s a 1-year program run on the ground in Mumbai and Delhi, where the girls are in the driving seat – they decide on an issue in their own lives that they want to address. After that, they are given a budget, they do all of the planning for the intervention, are centrally involved in impact measurement. One area of focus has been addressing restrictions that adolescent girls face in urban environments. Through the Learning Community interventions, they have gotten doors put on public toilets in their community, trash cleaned from their neighbourhood, street lamps put up. All these interventions are led entirely by the girls.

Ultimately, girls lead the learning community, they are the architects of all activities; and they run the show. They’re the primary researchers and the teachers; the event planners and the decision-makers.

“[In India], you don’t get a stage where you can clarify your doubts,” says girl leader Sarah. “The Learning Community is a platform where we can clarify our doubts and ask the questions that are in our minds. But in our own community we can’t do that. They say, ‘How can you talk about these issues? You are a girl. How can you talk about rape? You don’t have the right to talk.’ But we DO have the right. The Learning Community is a place where we can talk freely about all things.” — Adolescent Girls’ Learning Communities

What learnings have you had by bringing girls on board as key stakeholders? What lessons does that offer other organizations who also work with women and girls? 

Our first step to working with girls is: not viewing them as beneficiaries. Our second step: acknowledging and enabling their agency. Because we become a more impactful organization when we center programming around girls and their voices and ideas. We really need to recognise that when organizations don’t do this, it brings in externalities into a program; we really believe that when you ask girls for their advice on a program, the changes for success go up tremendously. So in terms of efficiency, if you talk to the girls, and ask “exactly what is stopping you from completing the program?”; if those issues can be designed in the program from the very beginning, your chances for the program’s success shoot up.

For instance,  the girls tell us: for 11 months we’re fighting our parents to come to the centre, and then it’s only in month 11th, when the program hosts a big event, that they’re supportive. What we learned from them was the importance of engaging parents early on, and this is a learning that we have shared with our local partners, who have incorporated it into their programming.  Listening deeply means that we can learn from the girls what the inhibitors to participation might be.

Our grantee partners have also been responsive to listening to what girls have to say and have taken on many of the suggestions coming from the girls themselves.

If organizations listen to girls then programs will be more successful and investments will have a more profound impact. We genuinely believe that chances for success go up, by listening to girls and their advice to us as programmers.

About EMpower’s Girls Advisory Council (GAC)

The GAC involves girls as key actors in decision-making, investing funds to bring their ideas to fruition, piloting, testing and measuring the results. A series of feedback loops allows for the perspectives of adolescent girls in India to provide powerful insight and then be acted upon. Through monitoring and evaluation, the ideas are continually refined and integrated into EMpower’s girl-focused strategy in India.  EMpower believes that “participatory philanthropy”  not only helps to shape more effective programs, but also reflects our core belief in the potential of all young people and the importance of their being positive agents of change. Our collaborative approach involves all of our local grantee partners in India, and seeks to create opportunities for continued learning and sharing.

The Toolkit for Monitoring & Evaluating Programs for Adolescent Girls, curated by EMpower , includes resources on monitoring and evaluating programs for adolescent girls, borne out of EMpower’s work with the Adolescent Girls Learning Community in Mumbai. It is for use by anyone working with adolescent girls.  These amazing resources for girl programming, as well as other Youth Development Tools, can be accessed here: http://www.empowerweb.org/youth-development-tools

For a comprehensive set of resources, including information about the Girls’ Advisory Council and Adolescent Girls’ Learning Communities, click here.


About Author
Nisha Dhawan
Nisha Dhawan Country Director, India EMpower - The Emerging Markets Foundation

Nisha Dhawan is the Country Director for India. She is passionate about amplifying the voices of girls, financial inclusion, and gender equity. Prior to assuming this role, she was the Director of the Adolescent Girls and Gender Initiatives at EMpower where she worked collaboratively with the global program team developing girl-focused capacity-building workshops, providing technical assistance and promoting cross-pollination of learnings in all 15 countries where EMpower works. Nisha’s initial role at EMpower was as the Senior Program Officer for India with responsibility for developing and managing grantee partnerships and programmatic initiatives.

Prior to joining Empower, Nisha worked at Abt Associates in Delhi as a gender and market linkages specialist on a USAID funded project. Nisha began her career working at Deutsche Bank and Barclays where she managed the Banks relationship with regulators and exchanges. Nisha holds an MA in Gender, Development and Globalization from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in International Politics and Women’s Studies. She has submitted her PhD in Sociology to the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi – examining the role that Non-Traditional Livelihoods plays in advancing the
project of gender equity.