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Close to 20% of the world’s adolescent girls live in India: Jessica Posner, CEO, Girl Effect

Girl Effect is a creative non-profit working to support girls through adolescence and empower them to make positive choices so they can reach their potential. Founded by the Nike Foundation in 2004, Girl Effect is now an independent organisation working from nine global locations and active in over 50 countries.
Using a unique understanding of girls and innovative behaviour change science, Girl Effect creates media brands that girls love, with content that is entertaining, informative and relevant to their everyday lives. Girl Effect uses technology to reach girls at scale and works with partners to drive demand and link to information and services available to them.
Girl Effect recently unveiled its first youth programme in India called Chhaa Jaa to mark the International Day of the Girl Child. The programme via digital media content aims to empower adolescent girls in India and also equip girls with the right skills and confidence.
The foundation has launched three digital media properties across social media platforms which aims to leverage to create content that reflects the choices girls face as adolescents using entertaining, informative and authentic storylines. Excerpts from a conversation with CEO Jessica Posner Odede who was in India to launch Chhaa Jaa.

Q 1. Tell us about your journey from social entrepreneur to CEO of Girl Effect.

When I was 21, and studying in Connecticut, I decided to spend a semester abroad in Kibera, Kenya – one of the largest slums in the world. The size of Central Park, more than 1 million people live in Kibera and the realities for women and girls living there can be brutal.
Whilst there, I was fortunate to meet Kennedy – one of many inspiring leaders from Kibera’s local community bringing young people from the slum together to solve community issues. Inspired by his resilience, I stayed and worked with Kennedy – now my husband – to co-found Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in 2009. SHOFCO works to transform urban slums by providing critical services, community advocacy platforms, education and leadership development for girls and women.
It was during my 12 years in Kibera – inspired by the people I met – that my passion for changing the world for girls was realized. That fundamentally, a girls’ prospects are entirely dependent on and at the mercy of the social constructs in which they are born. Girls and women all over the world have to disproportionately fight for the right to education, healthcare, economic empowerment, and to the kind of opportunities that enable them to reach their full potential.

I’m proud that in my role as CEO of Girl Effect that I can change the path of not just girls in Kenya, but across the globe. This is an exciting time to be part of this movement. The difference between what can be achieved now versus what could be done 12 years ago when I arrived in Kenya is unfathomable. The rise of mobile means girls – wherever they live – can access information to act on their ambitions. And 300 million more girls and women are set to access the mobile internet in the next three years.
Q 2. What are the causes you are most passionate about?
Of course, I am incredibly passionate about empowering girls to navigate the pivotal time of adolescence so they are enabled to make positive choices about their health, education, and economic future – no matter where in the world they live.
I am also passionate about technology as the vehicle to create long-lasting change. Mobile is making the world better connected every day. Over 3.77 billion people now use the internet and two-thirds of the global population has a mobile phone. The landscape of broadband digital access in India has seen rapid growth, with more than half a billion internet users across the country. There’s an unprecedented opportunity in front of us because adolescents in India are the first generation to experience the democratization of mobile and internet services.
Over the next five years, two out of every three potential new mobile subscribers will be female, and this increased digital engagement brings with it huge opportunities to reach and connect some of the most marginalised and hard-to-reach global citizens: vulnerable girls

Q 3. Although there are various govt. run women empowerment initiatives for girls in India, the state of girl child education and gender equality is abysmal. What does Girl Effect hope to change?

Close to 20% of the world’s adolescent girls live in India. Despite better access to education, employment and health opportunities than ever before, girls face many barriers to reaching their potential – simply because they are girls.
With the digital revolution in India, there is now an incredible opportunity for us to use media and mobile at scale to empower girls to transform their lives. But it is a frontier where girls get left behind both in terms of access and in terms of spaces online that are created with-and-for girls. We want Chhaa Jaa to be the go-to for girls as they make decisions that will define their own futures and tap into the proud feminist discourse that is growing exponentially in the country.

Q 4. How does Girl Effect use mobile technology to advance the cause of gender equality and female literacy?

Everything we do at Girl Effect is rooted in girl-insights and so the development of Chhaa Jaa is designed with girls at its heart. Our research based product, TEGA (Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors), is our girl-operated digital research tool that provides accurate, real-time insight into girls’ lives. TEGA empowers adolescent girls aged 16-24 to conduct interview research within their own communities – with girls, and others within the community too.

Girl Effect’s Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors (TEGAs) have uncovered authentic insights into the lives of adolescent girls in India and will enable us to test and improve Chhaa Jaa’s content through feedback from girls and their communities.

Q 5. Take us through some success stories in other regions where Girl Effect operates.

Girl Effect is working from nine global locations (India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Malawi, the U.K., the U.S., and Tanzania) and active in over 50 countries.
Another recent launch, along with Vodacom Tanzania Foundation, is Tujibebe – a mobile-based brand aimed at young people in Tanzania aged 14–19, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The name means “let’s lift ourselves up, together” in Swahili. Tujibebe encourages entrepreneurism, with practical and interactive content. Since launch of the IVR line we’ve had almost 100,000 calls and 47% of people have called more than once.
We’re also empowering girls across Africa with content and information for free via Springster, Girl Effect’s mobile first social brand with engaging content funded by the partnership and designed to empower her to build the confidence, knowledge, and skills that she needs.

This content is live in over 50 countries and 13 languages including India, Tanzania, DRC, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique, and Lesotho.

Q 6. How does your organisation work towards equipping girls in India with a better future?

Our new brand – Chhaa Jaa – is aimed at older adolescent girls living in urban centres with the current focus being on the Hindi-speaking belt. The launch content is based on Girl Effect’s core belief that to deliver long-term change it is crucial to build up a girl’s sense of self, her identity and her ability to ask questions.
Arre Sunn Na uses sketch comedy to tell the story of two friends – Sweety and Tannu – to deliver powerful messages on the need for girls to stand by their decisions, think of themselves as being more than their relationships, and show how to navigate difficult everyday situations. Khullam Khulla and Tumhari Meri Baatein follow the story of an everyday girl, Rani who busts common myths teens have, and hopes to take on the shame and stigma around sexual and reproductive health (SRH) knowledge.
Reflecting the seismic shift in India’s digital media landscape, Chhaa Jaa comes to life online and on social platforms to meet girls where they are already looking for information or increasingly will be. Chhaa Jaa launches with three digital media properties designed to reflect the choices girls face as adolescents using entertaining, informative and authentic storylines. The content is underpinned by innovative behaviour change science designed to empower girls to make informed decisions about their future – from accessing information about sexual and reproductive health, to negotiating with parents about choices for their education, or preparing to find a first job.
Chhaa Jaa’s storylines and characters are rooted in local culture and were co-created with girls, media, gender and culture experts after months of field research with girls, boys, parents and communities across India and takes on topics like social pressures, relationships and career readiness. By tackling societal norms in India around expectations of a girls’ position in society, we will drive demand to quality, affordable, products and services that girls need to improve their sexual reproductive health and economic readiness.

Q 7. How would India Inc. be an enabler in helping this cause?

Significant investments have been made by governments and the private and public ecosystems that support them, on education, health and employment schemes, provisions and last-mile services. Initiatives such as P&Gs Parivartan – The Whisper School Program, Indians Govts’ SABLA, Deloitte’s WorldClass Skilling Program and Skill India are just some examples of this in India. I have worked all over the world as a social entrepreneur and from this experience I know that supply of vital services is very important but is just one part of the puzzle.

Often, not enough attention is focused on understanding the societal barriers that can get in the way of people accessing these services and the drivers to encourage that action.

At Girl Effect, we believe that by generating this demand and a long-term need for these services in the minds of the girls and their communities, they would be far better utilised and the impact transformational. Without this, investments in building and maintaining supply-side services can only go so far. I know this from building SHOFCO, and I know this to be true of the Indian context.
To really make a difference, more and more girls need to actively seek out services and use them to improve their lives – be it a service to learn entrepreneurship skills, visits to health clinics or using contraceptives.
The movement to create this demand has already begun but has a long way to go. And Girl Effect wants to help tilt the scales towards demand generation and partner with as many organisations, foundations, trusts and the government to design this in the right way. Helping girls make these positive choices is what catalyzes large scale transformation, unlocking the value of the investment in these services!

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The CSR Journal Team