Girl Summit DC: Keeping Promises through Policy Research

The third annual Girl Summit DC—taking place this week and co-hosted by CGD, IWHC, Girls Not Brides USA, Population Council, the International Center for Research on Women, and CARE—will be an opportunity to push for more research in specific policy areas, including how to address harmful cultural norms and practices facing girls. Traditions that impact girls in the formative years of their lives is the focus of research at CGD by Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi and now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center. President Banda will be speaking about the need to better understand some of these widespread practices.

Women leaders and advocates have worked hard to bring particular forms of harmful traditional practices to light, and many of the gains we have made in fighting practices like FGM/C and child marriage have been precisely due to their visibility. But from Cameroon’s breast ironing practice intended to delay sexual activity, to Ghana’s trokosi tradition that enslaves young girls to local shrines as atonement, there are many other localized practices—equally harmful to the bodies and psyches of girls—that continue to fail to make headlines. Key reasons for this invisibility are that many such cultural practices are extremely context-specific and often take place within the frame of secretive initiation rites, creating a conspiracy of silence between girls and community leaders who safeguard traditions.

Click below to hear President Banda discussing her research at CGD on how the lives of young girls and young boys start to differ from a very early age—and what consequences that brings.

Improving norms at the household and community levels will be an important step toward ensuring girls' well-being, quality education, and equality—and to do this we need a research agenda focused on better understanding these norms and the best tools for shifting them. This year’s Girl Summit DC is a timely opportunity to seriously consider this problem of norms and traditions through a new research lens.

Since last year’s Girl Summit DC, the US Administration launched the first-ever Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (read CGD blogs commenting on the strategy here and here). The adolescent girls strategy represents a major milestone in the way the US Government works with and on behalf of adolescent girls. However, with the end of the Obama Administration so near, the Government and advocates must now focus on the unfinished business of implementing the strategy. One topic of concern, currently being explored by President Banda, is that of harmful norms and practices facing girls.

To build on the global community’s achievements in the last few years, our efforts to improve the lives of girls must be accompanied by a research agenda that directly addresses harmful cultural practices and norms—both as an issue of gender based violence and as a broader impediment to girls reaching their potential. To fully keep our promises to girls, we must better understand the wide range of influences that shape them for better and for worse.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.