“On August 23rd, 2009, the New York Times Magazine proclaimed: “The oppression of women worldwide is the human rights cause of our time.” In fact, this statement announced to the general public an already growing movement amongst demographers, fundraisers, and aid workers in the global development industry: the identification of adolescent girlhood as a particularly salient point for intervention. Nowhere is this investment of resources more visible than in Uganda, where both multinational NGOs and Kampala-based civil society organizations seek to “empower” girls – psychologically (via self-esteem), personally (via leadership training), and economically (via microloans). Ugandans often interpret these initiatives as the product of a vibrant women’s movement that won significant gains for political representation following the installation of the Museveni government in 1992. These more recent changes are rooted in a context of deeply patriarchal rights in women: control of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities has long been central to the reproduction of Ugandan communities.
My dissertation research investigates the production, circulation, and consumption of “girls’ empowerment” in order to better understand how development, age, and gender have become imbricated in an ideology that attracts resources and unquestioning public support in some parts of the world and must be translated in others. I ask: What presumptions about age, gender, and human potential inform programming directed toward adolescent girls? How do data about women and girls in the global South become fact, and thus actionable, in the development industry? Who transmits and translates the intentions of girls’ empowerment programs and likewise the needs of adolescent girls? How do the participants of girls’ empowerment programs take up and renegotiate these ideologies? What are some of the effects and unintended consequences for social reproduction in the families and communities in which these programs intervene?”