Girl Branded: Nike, the UN and the Construction of the Entrepreneurial Adolescent Girl Subject

by Maria Hengeveld

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Winner, Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights (2015)


With the rise of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthro-capitalism since the early 2000s, transnational corporations (TNCs) have come to play a prominent role in international policy debates on sustainable development and human rights. A key feature of the growing corporate interest in poverty reduction is its faith in feminist ideas as tools for change. Spearheaded by the ‘Girl Effect’ campaign of athletic apparel giant Nike (since 2008), development institutions and aid agencies have largely embraced the idea that ‘rebranding girls’ in the Global South as untapped market potential and training them as self-confident, entrepreneurial market actors represents the key to solving poverty. In an attempt to gauge the growing influence of TNCs on development policy, this article analyzes the principles and the actual effects of the Girl Effect and compares it with Nike’s own interests as a corporation built on women’s labor. It argues that contrary to freeing girls’ potential, the Girl Effect project capitalizes on patriarchy to depoliticize poverty and inequality. Far from empowering women or supporting the poor, Nike’s rebranding project is an attempt to discipline girls, and the NGOs that represent them, into behaviors that support the status quo, distract from corporations’ misbehavior and expand the power of the market.

Keywords: corporations, globalization, Girl Effect, sweatshops, poverty, development, feminism


Desde el inicio de la decada del 2000, el crecimiento de los programas de Responsabilidad Social Empresaria (RSC) y el capitalismo filantrópico, han dado un lugar cada vez mas relevante a las corporaciones transacionales (TNCs) en los debates internacionales sobre las políticas en torno al desarrollo sustentable y los derechos humanos. Un rasgo que sobresale de las campañas de las corporaciones de reducción de pobreza es su fe en que las ideas feministas pueden ser un motor de cambio. Inspirados en la campaña “Girl Effect” llevada adelante por el gigante de la ropa deportiva Nike (desde 2008), instituciones dedicadas al desarrollo y a campañas de alivio de la pobreza han adoptado la idea de que “apuntar a las mujeres como marca” del Sur Global, que representan un mercado a explorar, entrenarlas en ganar autoestima y en convertirse en actores del mercado empresarial, puede ser una  clave para combatir la pobreza. En un intento por medir la creciente influencia de las TNCs  en las políticas del desarrollo, este artículo analiza los principios y los efectos de la campaña “Girl Effect” y los compara con los  propios intereses de Nike, una corporación construida en base al trabajo de las mujeres. Se argumenta que la campaña “Girl Effect” en vez de colaborar en liberar el potencial de las mujeres, utiliza el patriarcado para despolitizar la pobreza y la inequidad. Lejos de empoderar a las mujeres o apoyar a los pobres,  el “apuntar a las mujeres como marca” de Nike es un intento por disciplinar a las mujeres y a las ONGs que las representan en la importancia de mantener el status quo, distraerlas de las malas conductas de las corporaciones y expandir el poder del mercado.

Read a commentary response to this issue:

“Nike’s Girl Effect and the Privatization of Feminism”
By: Megan Tobias Neely

About the author:

Maria Hengeveld is a researcher and journalist who writes about inequality, gender, globalization and corporations. This paper is based on the M.A thesis she wrote as a Fulbright Fellow in human rights at Columbia University in 2015. Earlier this year, Hengeveld conducted a research project in Vietnam, funded by the 2015 IF Stone Award from The Nation Institute for Investigative Reporting, to test the Girl Effect standards in Nike’s own factories. There, she interviewed 18 women who work for Nike about the factory and living conditions they face. To read more of Hengeveld’s work, she blogs at Africa is a Country and tweets @HengeveldMaria.

Project & Publications Type: Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights, Working Paper Series