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Negotiating Girl Power: Empowering women and girls to build sustainable livelihoods (completed)

This PhD project at SUM investigates how concepts such as 'gender' and 'empowerment' are implemented on local levels in rural Malawi.

A global priority

‘Gender equality and women and girls empowerment’ have become a top policy priority with the onset of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the established UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the wake of these declarations, a vast number of global development actors have adapted programmes to follow up the UN goals. As a result of these campaigns the SDG Goal 5: 'achieve gender equality and empowering women and girls' has become almost a social movement within the global development field.

Women and girls in the Global South have been presented as modern symbols of progress and as individual and powerful entrepreneurs of developmental change. We can see this individualistic turn reflected in the rise of gender-framing interventions. Such interventions aims to give women and girls’ life-skills training and are carried out by development organizations. These interventions focus on the individual women and girls’ specific attitudes and behavior, such as, school-discipline, sexual abstinence, condom- and contraceptive use etc. Thus, less focus is put on ethical, practical, and structural inequality due to gender norms, human rights violations, poor infrastructure and socio political- and economic factors.

About the project

On the overall level the project focus on how language as a social act is influenced by, and imbricated in, a historical-, cultural- and ideological context and how these elements may construct local understandings of policy concepts. Specifically the project aims to critically analyze the individualist turn to development projects for women and girls. By focusing on how concepts such as 'gender' and 'empowerment' tap into the field of global development and how they are re-constructed and implemented on local levels, the study attempt to answer questions such as; whose voice is enhanced, whose voice is muted, which discussions are promoted, silenced or shut down, who benefits from the dominant discourse and who is disfavored?

The empirical research is based on an 11 month research stay and fieldwork in rural and urban Malawi. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with more than 60% of its total health expenditure financed by donor aid (WHO, 2015) and has an exceedingly high presence of internationally funded Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) operating within the country. These organizations contextualize and display global development policies such as the SDG Goal 5 on both national and local levels, through campaigns, conferences, interventions, workshops, commercials, mass media etc. Thus, especially rural Malawi, where many of these interventions are carried out, renders a context that nuance how concepts such as ‘gender’ and ‘empowerment’ permeate in to the broader development objectives.


This project aims to create new local, national and international perspectives on how global policies and implementing practices may have local consequences not accounted for. The project has a relevance to policy makers, donors, and non-governmental organisations administrating and applying policies on all levels of society.


Primary outcomes are the publication of three academic articles that builds theory and presents findings on the above topics.

In addition, the project is committed to knowledge exchange beyond the academic sphere, by providing scientific input at policy-related conferences and popular press.  


Three years, 2016-2019.


The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway’s GLOBVAC Programme.


This project is a sub-study of the of the larger project ‘NGOs and the transfer of global maternal health policies – NGOMA’ and is a collaboration between the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo and Chancellor College at University of Malawi.

Published Mar. 2, 2018 1:35 PM - Last modified Nov. 28, 2022 11:45 AM