Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2017

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Why did intersectional visions of transnational social justice of the late 1980s and early 1990s give way to a dominant strand of free market feminism within the global women’s rights movement by the mid-1990s? This dissertation traces the growth of the transnational girls’ rights movement since the 1970s. It focuses on a network of girl-focused activists based in Nairobi, Kenya, who lobbied for the inclusion of the rights of the girl-child in the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women. Activists and scholars commonly hail the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China in 1995, as the blueprint for the global women’s rights movement. Locating the full emergence of “girls’ rights” at the height of structural adjustment and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and 1990s, this dissertation argues Nairobi-based activists initially argued girls in Africa lacked rights because of Structural Adjustment Programs and other economic austerity programs mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; capitalism; the damaging legacies of colonialism; and other historically and locally contingent factors. Still other activists maintained the status of girls drastically varied across the continent of Africa, with many girls enjoying parity or near-parity to boys in various aspects of life. The dominant strand of girl-focused advocacy at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, however, emphasized a form of “free market feminism” that turned this earlier logic on its head. The Declaration and Platform for Action adopted in Beijing maintained that near-universal discrimination against girls existed across Africa; that “culture” and “traditional Patriarchy” were the main culprits; that girls’ lack of rights prevented them from fully participating in economic development as women; and that attitudinal, affective, and behavioral changes at the level of the individual, family, and community were needed to address both girls’ oppression and economic impoverishment within Africa. The arguments of many Nairobi-based activists who lobbied to include girls’ rights in the Beijing conference in the first place were silenced in the process. The contributions of these people – mostly women from Kenya and other African countries – were simultaneously erased from the history of the global girls’ and women’s rights movements. This dissertation centers on the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), a Nairobi-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that led pan-African campaigns surrounding girl-focused advocacy beginning in the late 1980s. It examines the relationship between FEMNET and the East and Southern Africa Regional Office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF ESARO). The dissertation draws from archival and oral evidence in English, Kiswahili, and French that was collected through one and a half years of fieldwork in Kenya, primarily at the archives of Nairobi-based NGOs; six months of research in France and the United States; and consultation of various online repositories of United Nations documents.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Jean Allman

Committee Members

Shefali Chandra, Andrea Friedman, Dorothy Hodgson, Timothy Parsons,


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