Meeting the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides in Hong Kong

I was thrilled to be invited to address the global conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a huge gathering of the world’s largest voluntary organization dedicated to young women and girls, this week in Hong Kong.  There are 10 million Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 145 countries around the world–and an estimated 245 million alumni of their programs worldwide.

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South Sudan, having gained independence in 2011, was accepted into the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts this week in Hong Kong. Just shows you the WAGGGS are “on top of it,” even if they are 100 years old.

Girl Scouts and Girl Guides began, in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, about 100 years ago, a manifestation of the Progressive Era and the women’s club movement.  The Boy Scouts, on which the two girls’ organizations were based, has always been a fundamentally conservative outfit, intentionally focused on shoring up white masculinity.  In contrast, because the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts were concentrated on outdoor activities for girls, an idea that challenged that era’s gender stereotypes, the girls’ movement has been forward-leaning from the start.

You can easily see how contemporary WAGGGS’ focus is today by visiting the website: the focus on girls’ leadership has been there at least since I was a scout, but the campaign to stop violence against women, the Advocacy Toolkit, and the “Global Action Theme” to support the Millennium Development Goals are all very 21st century.

Princess Benedikte of Denmark and CY Leung, chief executive of Hong Kong government, sign a triumvirate of comic dragons who pranced into the conference opening..

Princess Benedikte of Denmark and CY Leung, chief executive of Hong Kong government, sign a triumvirate of comic dragons who pranced into the conference opening.

Certainly that first night in Hong Kong was a statement of how global the movement is today.  The event opened with a jubilant celebration and welcome for the country delegations, including new groups admitted to WAGGGS this year from Myanmar and South Sudan. At dinner, Jim and I were seated with a group of advisors from the WAGGGS global board and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner conversations with these engaged, intelligent, future-facing women.  

The following morning began the serious business.  The delegates were arrayed in the large ballroom, at tables with country placards (looked like the United Nations) and all the proceedings were simultaneously translated into several languages.

When I arrived to give my talk, the delegates were hearing the results of a large-scale study of today’s preferences among girls around the world, done in support of their ambitious plan to increase membership to 12 million in the next five years.  The challenge goes beyond appealing to girls with the right “image” and activities.  Scouting is delivered by volunteers.  The role of troop leader, however, has become something that really requires capability and commitment–yet many women are so stretched for time that recruiting the right kind of volunteer becomes a big task.  Of course, there are also many obstacles to overcome in translating programs across cultures that range from the US to Oman, with different languages and religions, but also widely various physical and institutional conditions.

My own talk was about women’s economic empowerment (of course) and its importance to world wellbeing, but I also spoke a bit about my own early years as a scout and my rediscovery of the scouting movement when I was researching Fresh Lipstick.  I expressed my admiration for the new programs being implemented by WAGGGS, especially the badges and other programs on financial literacy.  I ended with an appeal to them to help push out the Power Shift group’s petition on behalf of financial inclusion for females:  #DoubleXPetition began trending almost immediately!  (You can sign the petition here.) (Track the WAGGGS buzz on #35woco.)

The video from my talk is below.  It wobbles a bit in the beginning and has some gaps, but is mostly complete (this was Jim recording from the front row and not the most flattering angle!). I have broken it into two parts in order that it could be uploaded to youtube.  I am speaking a bit slowly because of the simultaneous translation going on.  I also made a few remarks about the potential role of WAGGS in the movement to empower women economically, which I will reserve for the next post.  In sum, it has been a great experience to be reunited with this important force for women everywhere.

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