Denise Dunning unlocks girl power through Let Girls Lead

by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
Staff Writer of
The Christian Science Monitor
Permission to use this material
was granted by
The Christian Science Monitor

Let Girls Lead has provided training and services to more than 40,000 adolescent girls to foster a movement of global girl power.

To help girls stay in school, women and girls in Malawi are taking a stand against child marriages. So far they have persuaded leaders in 22 villages to penalize men who try to marry a woman under age 21. One possible penalty? Taking away some of the man's goats or chickens.

It's the kind of strategy that probably wouldn't have occurred to a US-based nonprofit. But in countries where girls and women bear the brunt of poverty, Let Girls Lead, an Oakland, Calif.-based initiative founded by Denise Dunning, helps them amplify their voices and broaden their hopes, turning small victories into large-scale changes.

From village girls in Guatemala to a famous singer in Ethiopia, social entrepreneurs are transforming their societies with the help of Let Girls Lead, which offers training and other support to foster a movement of global girl power.

"The girls themselves know best their own reality,... [and local leaders] know best the obstacles they are facing and how to resolve them," Ms. Dunning says. By listening to and investing in girls and their allies, "we can help them create change far beyond our own imagination of scale and impact."

The progress in Malawi came about through a partnership between Let Girls Lead and Malawi's Girls Empowerment Network (GENET), which is campaigning to raise the national marriage age from 15 to 18. In the villages where GENET has already pushed for bylaws to raise the marriage age to 21, parents who try to marry off daughters before then have to sweep the floors at the local school or hospital, says GENET cofounder Joyce Mkandawire in a phone interview from Malawi.

One group of girls recently intervened when a teenage friend's parents arranged a marriage. The girls told the man, " 'No, you cannot marry our friend. Wait until she is 21,'... and they mobilized to be sure the marriage is dissolved," Ms. Mkandawire says.

Dunning, based at Oakland's Public Health Institute, started this work five years ago. Since then, Let Girls Lead has invested in 114 social entrepreneurs, provided training and services to more than 40,000 adolescent girls, and supported 600 grass-roots organizations, according to an outside review commissioned by a key donor, the United Nations Foundation, in 2013.

The policies and laws these advocates helped establish benefit more than 3 million girls in Africa and Latin America, the review found.

Dunning "has made me grow, both in my capacity as a person and also [through] the network she has managed to bring to us," including opportunities to attend international conferences, Mkandawire says. "She's someone I cherish so much."

Most of the young women starting out have little understanding of how to create change, Dunning says. Take Rosana Schaack, who lived through Liberia's civil war and then opened a home and school for girls victimized by violence. She was a lifesaver for dozens of girls but knew that thousands more needed help. Through Let Girls Lead, Ms. Schaack joined a network of other girls' advocates. They examined cultural and legal barriers to systemic change and went on to create a national advocacy campaign.

With a $20,000 grant from Let Girls Lead and some key partners, Schaack developed and helped pass Liberia's Children's Law, a landmark guarantee of rights to health care and education, along with other safeguards, with a particular focus on the needs of girls. Let Girls Lead is giving three years of support to ensure implementation of the Children's Law. Liberian girls write and blog about their experiences as a way to hold the government accountable.

What sets Let Girls Lead apart from other advocacy-training programs, Dunning says, is a tipping-point approach that equips local experts and then supports them as they pursue the strategies they hatch.

"It's the trend now to start talking about leadership, but [Dunning] was one of the first who ... in a nonpatronizing way really worked to empower and let them really lead, as opposed to us thinking, 'This is what youth want,' " says Francine Coeytaux, who has mentored Dunning since they first met about a decade ago.

"When you're sitting with her ... she makes you feel like your ideas and your experience are interesting and valuable," Ms. Coeytaux says. "She's emboldened lots of young women who are often at the bottom of the totem poll ... to feel confident enough about themselves that they have gone on to be on television or to change governments."

Dunning had the impulse to do this work long before she had the tools. When she was about 12 and living in Washington, D.C., she and her mother visited her mother's native Argentina. During a train trip in that country, another girl boarded, just a few years older, "and she's carrying a baby, and kind of dragging behind her a toddler, and they're really ragged and dirty and clearly very, very poor," Dunning recalls in a phone interview from Oakland.

As the girl walked down the middle aisle, asking for food or money, Dunning saw every person turn away.

"I remember feeling so incredibly angry – both that no one was helping her and that I was 12 and there was nothing remotely that I could do to help her."

Dunning says she decided in that moment, "If I were ever in a position where I could do something, that I wouldn't turn away, that I would act."

She studied public policy and global development, and earned a doctorate in sociology. She worked at a clinic in Ghana and at a microcredit program in India. In 1999 as a Fulbright scholar in Honduras she did hurricane relief work and saw how "women and girls suffer the most in poverty and disasters," she says.

Dunning moved to Guatemala in 2004 to help start a youth leadership program. She still mentors young people she met while working in Central America.

One, Eva Burgos, was the first woman in her town in Belize to pursue education beyond primary school. After becoming a teen mom she joined a youth leadership program in her 20s.

Dunning "brings this empowerment through friendship and mentoring," Ms. Burgos says in a phone interview. "She made me realize I can do more, and it's not wrong, it's not inappropriate even if you have a family."

Energetic young people, Dunning realized, simply need skills and support to give them "leverage to create change for millions."

Dunning's most recent project is the production of "¡PODER!" ("Power"), a short film that tells the true story of how 16-year-old Elba Velasquez and 14 other Mayan girls in rural Guatemala persuaded their mayor to set up policies ensuring girls can attend school, receive health care, and help their families out of poverty.

In a country where less than 10 percent of Mayan girls finish elementary school, these girls, with the help of an advocate trained by Let Girls Lead, learned public speaking and policy analysis. They engaged parents, teachers, and religious leaders in a conversation about the need to invest in girls.

They transformed their community: Two of the girls were even elected to the town council.

This fall, Let Girls Lead launched the Global Girls' Conversation, inviting girls from around the world to tell how they've created change in the form of one- or two-minute video submissions. When "¡PODER!" premières in March, winners will be announced and will receive $10,000 in funding, training, and equipment to create their own longer film.

One goal of "¡PODER," directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell, is to change the way that girls are thought of so that they "aren't seen as victims ... [but as] amazing agents of change," Dunning says.

"People want to give pencils to a school in Africa, or build a health clinic they can see," she says. But investing in girl leaders has the greatest potential for making changes that last.

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Help girls worldwide

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help girls in many countries:

Develop Africa establishes meaningful and sustainable development in Africa through education. Project: Educate a girl, educate a nation.

Global Volunteers helps advance peace, racial reconciliation, and mutual international understanding through volunteer service. Project: Teach English in southern Italy.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to help achieve high levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Project: Support training to empower an adolescent girl with skills.


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February 21st, 2014
Christian Science Monitor