By: Juany Garcia Perez and Emily Teitsworth; Originally posted on The Guardian
How did 15 adolescent girls transform a community of over 26,000 people and a nation of 14 million? They started by simply sharing their stories. Many of us who work in international development are suspicious of interventions that are not exclusively data-driven, preferring quantitative analysis to the subjective nature of storytelling. However, when advocating with government decision-makers, a compelling story is often a more effective tool than a spreadsheet or a report.
Recognising the power to lead social change through storytelling, the Adolescent girls' advocacy and leadership initiative (Agali) is launching Let Girls Lead – a global movement that amplifies the power of girls to create their own solutions, tell their own stories, and lead social change around the world.
Since 2010, Agali has supported an indigenous girls' democratic participation project in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. In this region, only 14% of indigenous girls attend secondary school and more than half experience pregnancy before the age of 20. Further, conservative cultural norms mean that adolescent girls are often socially isolated, forced to do chores at home instead of school work, and are not allowed to participate in public life.
Against these enormous obstacles, 15 indigenous girls from a small town in Western Highlands transformed social norms and public policy in their community by successfully advocating with the mayor to approve and fund policies that support girls' education and health. Two of these girls were then elected to the town council, becoming the first two adolescent girls to participate on a government town commission in Guatemala.
Project participant Yessenia Chanax, 19, said: "The major issue with adolescents on a national level is that there are no real spaces for youth to have any decision-making power. [This project] offered a real space for us to participate." The girls learned how to do policy analysis, research needs within the community, strengthen their public speaking skills, and use local media to advance their agenda.
After learning about advocacy, human rights, and public speaking, the girls developed a community-based advocacy campaign. Then, they met with local government officials and developed a detailed policy proposal that they presented to the mayor. To illustrate the need for educational support, one girl spoke about how poverty had forced her to drop out of school and care for her siblings. Another shared the story of her sister, who became pregnant as a teenager because she had no access to health information or contraception. The mayor listened to their stories, commended them for their courage, and then approved their proposal.
Seeing the power in sharing stories, we wanted to help the girls' story reach a broader audience, but to do so in a participatory manner that reflected the process that had made the girls' advocacy work so effective in the first place. We partnered with award-winning documentary filmmaker Lisa Russell to produce ¡Poder! ('power' in Spanish), a short film that tells the story of the girls' successful advocacy campaign from their own perspective. To make the film as participatory and authentic as possible, we involved the girls in every step of the process.
Two of the girls most active in the project, Elba Velazquez and Emelin Cabrera, expressed a strong interest in acting, so we decided to tell the story of the project through their eyes. Before we developed a narrative or began filming, we incorporated the girls' perspectives into the narrative. Once we had developed a story arc, we arranged for all of the girls to act in the film, playing themselves. While the film focuses on the experiences of Elba and Emelin, involving all the girls in the storytelling process was critical to ensuring the film's power and authenticity.
The film also provided the girls the space to further strengthen the public speaking, leadership, and media advocacy skills they had learned. We leveraged our relationships with the local government to film in the mayor's office, where one of the mayor's top advisers appeared in the film in the role of the mayor. During the two hours we filmed in the government offices, the girls had the chance to speak with multiple government officials about their work and encourage them to support their ongoing advocacy for girls' rights. During the film shoot, Elba and Emelin continued their ongoing media advocacy through interviews with television and print reporters to talk about the film and their campaign for girls' education and health with the local community.
Finally, rather than relying on outside experts to appear in the film to validate the success of the project, we asked the girls themselves to tell us about the importance of the project in their own lives and in the life of their community. The experts we interviewed for the film will appear during the credits to provide context for the story and connect it to larger trends in development and advocacy work.
We are currently in post-production with ¡Poder! and will preview the film on 11 October for the International Day of the Girl. Building on our participatory filmmaking process, Elba and Emelin will be involved in editing the film, screening the rough cuts and providing feedback.
Meanwhile, the Let Girls Lead will also act as a participatory media platform enabling girls and their allies to create and upload one-minute film pitches that highlight their own inspiring stories for a global audience. It will host film pitches on an interactive web-based platform, and an independent jury of filmmakers will award funding, training, and equipment to girls to create their own short films.
The global premiere of ¡Poder! is scheduled for 8 March, 2014, in honour of International Women's Day. Elba, Emelin, and other young female leaders will host the Guatemala premiere of the film in their town, accompanying its release with a public forum on girl-centered advocacy. Agali's experience in Guatemala demonstrates the effectiveness of incorporating storytelling into girl-centered advocacy, and shows that documenting development projects can be done using participatory, narrative tools that complement the rigorous qualitative analysis already standard in the field.
Juany Garcia Perez is a 2009 Agali fellow and the creator of the indigenous girls' democratic participation project in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Emily Teitsworth is the manager of the Agali programme at the Public Health Institute.