Social justice should be a shared goal

By Dr. Molly Fitzgerald
February 19, 2019

Let’s talk about social justice.

As a global girls’ rights organization, Plan International USA is fighting for gender equality every day. And that means we’re really fighting for social justice.

Every year, February 20th is recognized as World Day of Social Justice. And although the United Nations established this day nearly a decade ago, social justice could not be a timelier topic.

In 2018, Merriam-Webster dubbed justice, “the quality of being fair and reasonable,” as the word of the year. Social justice adds to this notion the principle of equity and fairness in the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges in society.

Privilege and opportunity in the U.S. are anything but fairly or equitably distributed across the population, especially when examined by race, gender, socioeconomic class and immigration status.

Even though global problems like forced migration, conflict and climate change and the related rise in natural crises affect us all, we are not affected equally. Global social justice remains an elusive goal, even on today’s interconnected planet.

Elusive — but not unworthy. If we want to thrive as a society, we should work to overcome these disparities. Social justice should be a shared goal. Focusing on removing barriers that enable social inequity does not detract from those already enjoying privilege and opportunity. To the contrary, social justice provides collective benefits. In particular, improving equitable access to opportunities for young people can increase the chance of sustaining advances towards healthy, productive and educated communities.

Among adolescents globally, socioeconomic and other inequalities appear to be growing. This is a critical transition period for this age group to maximize their health and human potential. Equitable access to healthy development and life opportunities in adolescence should be a priority. A social justice lens is a prerequisite for cultivating and sustaining thriving, healthy adolescents and communities. It is the best way to remove barriers as a global society.

A social justice lens helps disentangle, identify and address multiple, often layered inequities. For example, the World Health Organization reports that half of all adolescent births occur more often in marginalized communities with barriers to education and employment opportunities. The global HIV burden on young people is also disproportionately high compared to other age groups, and even higher among girls in many countries.

Young people who identify as LGBTQIA+ face additional stigma and discrimination in communities throughout the world, often resulting in a disproportionate risk of gender-based violence and HIV. Poverty and lack of secondary school education for young people further undermine access to HIV and other adolescent sexual and reproductive health services, even where services are youth-friendly or gender responsive. Young people fleeing from crises face innumerable barriers and risks that undermine their ability to access health and education.

Our social justice lens challenges us to critically assess the questions we ask and to ensure that we offer opportunities to those who are facing the barriers. After all, answers can only be as true, accurate or useful as the questions that are asked.

A social justice lens embraces empathy, but we must also guard against being patronizing. Well-intentioned efforts to speak for those who are perceived as having little or no voice run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing a system that could exacerbate exclusion. In the global health and international development community, we must constantly, conscientiously and rigorously question our own assumptions, processes and approach to engagement.

Finally, we need to be cognizant of and ensure that the process does not reinforce unfair hierarchies of knowledge. Each of us knows best our own circumstances, and that unique perspective holds the key to more sustainable and effective solutions. That insight reveals critical nuances that can complement, or conversely render moot, “expert” knowledge that does not respond to the right questions.

This is the idea behind Plan’s GirlEngage approach to development, which puts girls in the driver’s seat of our programs. Girls are collaborators and partners in our work — they lead the way.  Because where they lack access to opportunity, they know what matters most to them. Collaborating with girls in a way that builds equity into the process, starting from removing barriers to valuing, interpreting and using diverse knowledge and shared creativity, collaboratively defined solutions will surely lead to smarter, more sustainable, and more innovative solutions.