The Ethics of Visibilities: Sport for Development Media Portrayals of Girls and Women

Lyndsay M.C. Hayhurst (York University, Canada)
Holly Thorpe (University of Waikato, New Zealand)
Megan Chawansky (Otterbein University, USA)

Sport, Gender and Development

ISBN: 978-1-83867-866-1, eISBN: 978-1-83867-863-0

Publication date: 10 December 2021


Hayhurst, L.M.C., Thorpe, H. and Chawansky, M. (2021), "The Ethics of Visibilities: Sport for Development Media Portrayals of Girls and Women", Sport, Gender and Development (Emerald Studies in Sport and Gender), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 169-190.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021 Lyndsay M.C. Hayhurst, Holly Thorpe and Megan Chawansky. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This work is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this work (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at


This work is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this work (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at

An array of Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) programs focused on girls and young women are utilizing social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, Twitter) and digital technologies (i.e., websites, YouTube) to garner international attention and raise funds for their initiatives. In the context of the “Girl Effect” in development, we are increasingly seeing girls and young women from the Global South in action – playing soccer, climbing walls, riding skateboards, and engaging in an array of other sports. While such visual representations suggest a positive move away from what some have termed “poverty porn” that tends to victimize those from the Global South, in this chapter we argue for a need for more nuanced critical understanding of the power relations and ethics involved in the representation of girls and women from the Global South (Cornwall, 2016; Wilson, 2011). Located at the intersection of postfeminist, neoliberal and posthumanitarian discourses, many such representations are culturally complex, inspiring and/or intriguing to audiences in the Global North and thus are highly effective in garnering the attention of potential donors. In many cases, however, such images are essentially presenting “brown girls” as the “exotic other[s]” (Said, 1978) for the consumption of audiences from the Global North.

As Sensoy and Marshall (2010) suggest, if we view such initiatives and representations as “a political text mired in its social context and tied to historically bound colonial discourses and material power relations, then we can ask a different set of questions”: around whom do such organizations represent and “how far the right to represent extends”? (p. 309). According to Sensoy and Marshall (2010), media portrayals of girls and women in such programs demand a “close[r] examination of who represents whom, for what purposes and with what results” (p. 309).

Such considerations were, for example, critical in our processes of selecting an image for the cover of this book. Careful to avoid putting a young woman at unnecessary risk, while also trying to evoke the dynamism and potential in SGD, we chose an image that does not reveal the face of the girl skateboarder. As some have pointed out, audiences connect much more with the highly affective (and affecting) smiling faces of girls in SDP programs, and yet the safety of girls and women must be prioritized over any other potentially beneficial by-products of such imagery. This is more important than ever as the gendered risks of such imagery are dynamic and context-specific. As this book went into production, Afghanistan was moving into an increasingly volatile and uncertain period with US troops departing and the Taliban gaining strength (also see Chapter 4). The gendered risks have thus changed and will continue to change, since the image was initially taken, and when it was selected for the cover of this book. Responding to the changing conditions in Afghanistan, in the final stages of production, we asked for a more graphically modified cover image so as to remove any possible risks of identification of the young woman, the program, or the location. All SDP organizations, and those of us writing about and representing such programs, must always take a risk-averse approach that takes into consideration the local context, as well as the potential for interpretations and realities of such gendered risks to change quickly.

In this chapter we build upon our previous work to further explore the ethics of representing girls and women from the Global South in SDP organizational communication campaigns (Thorpe, Chawansky, & Hayhurst, 2018, 2019). First, we draw upon humanitarian communication and postfeminist literature to explore the political and ethical considerations involved in representing girls and women from the developing world in SDP campaigns. In the latter part of the chapter we draw upon the case of Sport for Youth* (pseudonym) – an international SDP organization with action sport and educational programs in Afghanistan, as well as Asian and African countries – focusing particularly on Sport for Youth's social media representations of girls and young women doing action sports in Afghanistan. Drawing upon interviews with local Afghan and international staff members involved in producing online communication campaigns, the chapter reveals some of the nuanced power relations within such media portrayals. In so doing, we also draw attention to some of the unintended consequences of “positive” representations of sporting girls from the Global South, and some of the strategies employed by Sport for Youth to navigate such issues and minimize risk to staff and students. We begin by contextualizing this case within the broader literature relating to recent shifts in humanitarian communication strategies, with a particular focus on representations of girls and young women from the Global South.

Humanitarian Communication, the Girl Effect and the Ethics of Representation

Over the past decade, there has been a growing interest in studying the communication strategies and a esthetic properties of humanitarian and development campaigns (Koffman & Gill, 2013; Shain, 2013; Switzer, 2013; Wilson, 2015). According to Dogra (2007), the representations of humanitarian agencies, social movements, and community organizations, including visual imagery, are worthy of deeper critical consideration precisely because they “influence policies, practices and discourses of ‘development’ and connect cultures globally” (p. 161). Continuing, however, she notes that the images NGOs choose to project are “not based on unmediated or ‘free’ choices”:

For instance, there are limitations of charity laws, tug of multiple stakeholders, specific “organizational subjectivity,” and the very nature of visual images and their myriad interpretations. However there is still a choice which is deliberately exercised by the NGO when it selects one image over another and uses it publicly.

(Dogra, 2007, p. 170)

Hall (1993) reminds us that images can be decoded in a variety of ways and such readings are often informed by one's life experiences. While “oppositional” readings are always possible, NGOs tend to use images with a “preferred,” “dominant” or “hegemonic” reading intended by the organization (Dogra, 2007, p. 163). While much of the existing humanitarian communication literature focuses on the strategies being employed by organizations and the “preferred” (and often assumed) readings of audiences from the Global North, it is also imperative to consider how the images and narratives may potentially act as a “space where those dominant representations can be challenged and contested” (Cameron & Hannstra, 2008, p. 1476) within organizations and/or by local and international audiences. In this chapter, we make a case for feminist researchers of SDP to critically consider organizations' visual representations of girls and women from the Global South, recognizing that the visual materials produced by NGOs are always implicated in complex relationships between “representation, knowledge, and power” (Wilson, 2011, p. 319). Moreover, representations of the female sporting “Other” involve a number of ethical considerations, which demand critical exploration from those producing, consuming, and researching such imagery.

From “Poor and Powerless” to “Positive” Portrayals of Girls from the Global South

Humanitarian communication styles and strategies have undergone considerable change over the past four decades. Often termed “poverty porn,” victim-orientated representations have been critiqued for “constructing a public image in the North of ‘others’ in the South as passive, helpless and sub-human victims,” thus decontextualizing their suffering, removing their agency, and reinforcing “already widespread perceptions of cultural and intellectual superiority among Northern publics, as well as the belief that benevolent donors in the North are the primary source of solutions of the ‘problems’ of the South” (Cameron & Haanstra, 2008, p. 1478). In her critique of such visual strategies, Chouliaraki (2010) described these campaigns focusing on “the distant sufferer as the object of our contemplation,” and in so doing, establishing a “social relationship anchored on the colonial gaze and premised on maximal distance between spectator and suffering” (p. 110; Hall, 2001/1992). Focusing particularly on the gender politics of such representations, Win (2007) writes that the development industry promoted a rather trite depiction of the “Global South girl,” constructing her as “always poor, powerless and invariably pregnant, burdened with lots of children, or carrying one load or another on her head” (p. 79).

In response to widespread critique of the racist imperialism underpinning such campaigns, many humanitarian organizations and NGOs set out to deliberately represent the Global South through positive images of “self-reliant and active people, or at least to avoid using images that depicted people in the South as completely helpless victims” (Cameron & Haanstra, 2008, p. 1478). A key difference between “negative” and “positive” campaigns is that the latter reject the imagery of the sufferer as a victim, focusing instead on their agency and dignity (Chouliaraki, 2010). While positive imagery may appear to “avoid the ethical problems associated with pornographic representations of poverty” (Cameron & Haanstra, 2008, p. 1485), it is far from being unproblematic. According to Dogra (2007), such positive imagery remains a “lazy way out,” suggesting it is time to question the purpose of “positive” imagery:

Does an idealized “happy” image show the achievements of the INGO thereby representing a post-intervention scenario? Is it just the safest way out of the strong criticism of “negative” imagery? Or is the trend of “positive” imagery merely in tune with some currently acceptable marketing studies that indicate that appeals sent to potential donors with a “positive” image fetch more donations compared to the ones with “negative” images? (p. 168).

For Chouliaraki (2010), criticism against “positive image” appeals focuses precisely on this “ambivalent moral agency that their imagery makes possible” (p. 113). Chouliaraki (2010) has made a particularly valuable contribution to our understandings of these changes in humanitarian communication styles, moving beyond the simple dichotomy of “negative” and “positive” campaigns and focusing instead on a more nuanced discussion that “move(s) from emotion-oriented to post-humanitarian styles of appealing that tend to privilege low-intensity emotions and short-term forms of agency” (p. 108). Others have asked similarly critical questions about the development industry's neoliberalization of agency and choice (Wilson, 2015). In this context, we also need to pose questions as to the ethics of representation, in particular who is producing representations of those from the Global South and for what purposes, and who are the “owners” of these images? And who benefits from such imagery?

For many, the turn toward so-called “positive” representations of girls from the Global South may seem an improvement. Yet, a growing number of feminist scholars are arguing that this new positive imagery paradigm is “fraught with tensions and unintended consequences” (Koffman, Orgad, & Gill, 2015, p. 159; Calkin, 2015; Wilson, 2011, 2015). In particular, Wilson (2011) examines the “specific and gendered ways” in which “more recent visual productions are racialised,” exploring, in particular, “parallels and continuities between colonial representations of women workers and today's images of micro-entrepreneurship within the framework of neoliberal globalisation” (p. 315). Others have located such trends at the intersection of neoliberalism and postfeminist discourses (of female empowerment and girl power), arguing that the “girl” in these visual representations is in fact always understood in relation to, and in contrast with, her already empowered Northern counterpart (Calkin, 2015; Koffman & Gill, 2013; Switzer, 2013; Wilson, 2015). For example, Switzer (2013) draws upon the work of postfeminist media scholars such as McRobbie (2009) and Gill and Scharff (2011) to present a “(post)feminist development fable of adolescent female exceptionalism seeded in representations of young female sexual embodiment” that has come to “define expert and popular knowledge about the inter-dynamics of girls' education, gendered social change, and economic growth” (p. 350). In so doing, the Girl Effect has become a “regulatory representational regime” that works to reinforce binaries between empowered girls and women in the Global North and those needing their help in the Global South, explicitly racializing, depoliticizing, ahistoricizing, and naturalizing global structural inequities and legitimizing neoliberal interventions, all “in the name of girls' empowerment” (Switzer, 2013, p. 347).

Similarly, for Koffman et al. (2015), the new and intensified focus upon the figure of the girl in global humanitarian and development communications is revealing of a “distinctive, neocolonial, neoliberal and postfeminist articulation of girl power” (p. 157). They argue that the rise in postfeminist discourses and the turn toward posthumanitarian communication styles that move away from emotion-oriented campaigns to the privileging of low-intensity emotions and short-term forms of agency (Chouliaraki, 2010; also see Calkin, 2015) have “come together in the emerging ‘girl powering’ of humanitarian discourses – a cocktail of celebratory ‘girlafestoes’ and ‘empowerment strategies’ often spread virally via social media, celebrity endorsements, and corporate branding” (p. 158).

Koffman et al. (2015) and Wilson (2011) both locate the rise in “positive” representations of girls and women from the Global South within the “depoliticization, corporatization, and neoliberalization of humanitarian communications” (Koffman et al., 2015, p. 158). In turn, Wilson (2011) offers a particularly insightful examination of the consequences of such representations. According to Wilson (2011), contemporary “positive” visual representations of girls and young women in the Global South produced by development institutions and NGOs are “rooted in a notion of ‘agency’ consistent with – and necessary for – neoliberal capitalism” (p. 328). Rather than challenging the racialized and gendered power relationships inherent in development, this focus on the agency of girls (of both the Global South and Global North) works to shift “attention away from both material structures of power and gendered ideologies” (Wilson, 2011, p. 317):

… agency, like empowerment, is projected as a gift to be granted by the consumer of the images – and potential donor – implicitly reaffirming the civilising mission. Thus the notion of victims to be saved, which these images supposedly challenge, is not in fact eradicated but reworked. … Like their colonial predecessors, today's images work to silence or obscure multiple forms of resistance to contemporary imperialism.

(Wilson, 2011, p. 329)

In this chapter we call for greater consideration of how SDP organizations may similarly be “reworking” historical victim-based representations of girls and young women from the Global South for the purposes of raising funds from the Global North. Wilson (2011) asks a series of questions that we feel are pertinent to analyses of SDP representations of athletic girls and young women from the Global South, particularly: “What desires – licit and illicit – are being produced within the consumer of ‘positive images’ of women in the Global South?” (p. 320); “What are the implications of the kinds of ‘positive’ images of women which are produced?” and “In what ways are these images gendered and racialised?” (p. 322). Despite the increasing visibility of sporting girls and young women from the Global South, greater consideration needs to be given to the ethics of such representations or the (unintended) risks of so-called “positive” portrayals. In the following section, we suggest that such oversights may be influenced by the tendency for feminist sport media research to focus largely on sportswomen (and audiences) from the Global North.

SDP, Feminist Sports Media and Representations of the Global South

Various scholars have examined the communication strategies employed by SDP NGOs, with a particular focus on the growing prevalence of digital campaigns. For example, research has revealed how the Internet enables sport-related NGOs by attracting funding and donor support (Hambrick & Svensson, 2015; Svensson, Mahoney, & Hambrick, 2015; Wilson & Hayhurst, 2009) and supporting collaboration and competition among organizations (Hayhurst, Wilson, & Frisby, 2011). To date, few have focused specifically on representations of girls and young women in such campaigns. However, McDonald (2015) has observed the increasing “positive” representations of girls and young women in SDP programs in the Global South, noting that “most of the program images feature women in physical activity positions, or engaging with fellow participants and friends” and thus “stand in stark contrast to some poverty reduction campaigns that show the devastation that poverty ravages on the human body in order to play upon sympathies from potential donors and corporate sponsors” (p. 10). Some NGOs are also providing local staff and participants with opportunities to create their own images and narratives. As we suggest later in this chapter, even with the best intentions, such efforts are often underpinned with Global North/South power relations.

For some scholars and practitioners from the Global North, it might be assumed that representations of active girls and young women from the Global South that focus on their physical abilities and sporting achievements signify a positive trend in media portrayals. Here, however, we argue for the importance of rethinking some of the assumptions that have become hegemonic in feminist readings of media portrayals of sportswomen in the Global North. For over two decades, feminist sport sociologists have engaged in extensive media analyses of female athletes in the Global North, identifying the various ways their participation is marginalized, trivialized and (hetero)sexualized (see Bruce, 2015, for an overview of this research). In so doing, they have argued strongly for increased quantity and better quality of representations of sportswomen in media. Critically reflecting on this call for better “quality” of media coverage for sportswomen, Toffoletti (2016) suggests a need for expanding the conceptual boundaries by including sensibilities of postfeminism (Gill, 2007). In this call, Toffoletti (2016) works to disrupt the current understandings about what quality media coverage of sportswomen is, but she does so primarily with a Global North sportswoman in mind. Indeed, we would suggest that most of the academic literature on media representations of sportswomen fails to consider the needs and context of athletic girls and women from the Global South. Not surprisingly then, Samie and Sehlikoglu's (2015) analysis of Western (France, US, Canada and Australia) media coverage of Muslim female athletes who competed in London 2012 found that coverage consistently presented them as “strange, incompetent, and out of place.”

While we do not wish to conflate Muslim female athletes and athletes from the Global South, what we do seek to highlight is that increased coverage of physically active girls and women from the Global South does not necessarily lead to improved opportunities to participate in sport and social life. Such arguments challenge dominant assumptions that increased coverage is unquestionably positive for sportswomen and girls. Even content produced by local girls and women and then used by the NGO for their own purposes must be questioned. For, despite our observations of a steady growth in so-called “positive” representations of girls and women participating in sport in the Global South, there has been little focused attention on the ways the physically active Global South girls are being represented by SDP organizations and related media outlets. As we argue, the power and politics of representation are also highly place-specific, and thus NGOs should give careful consideration not only to their international audiences but also to the local and national contexts from which representations are created.

The Politics, Ethics and Risks of Representing Girls in SDP

In the remainder of this chapter we build upon the case of Sport for Youth as presented in Chapters 4 and 5, focusing specifically on Sport for Youth's marketing and communication strategies, particularly as they relate to their usage of social media and representations of Afghan girls. This discussion draws upon interviews conducted (in-person and via Skype) by Thorpe between 2011 and 2016 with 11 Sport for Youth staff, including 9 international staff (of recent past and present) and 2 Afghan staff involved in the communication and marketing strategies of Sport for Youth. While these interviews were part of a larger project led by Thorpe, a key line of questioning was their role in the documentation and production of imagery associated with Sport for Youth over the past 10 years and their understanding of the issues associated with representing Afghan girls in such materials. Interviewees included seven women and four men (pseudonyms will be used throughout) who had held a variety of roles within the NGO, including paid and volunteer positions ranging from Communications Manager to multimedia coordinating assistant, and thus the interviews offered a wide array of perspectives and critical understandings of such processes. In the remainder of this chapter, we engage with recent feminist humanitarian communication scholarship to critically contextualize the insights offered from interviews to consider how Sport for Youth's strategies are informed by broader trends in posthumanitarian communication and postfeminist culture. Although not the focus of this chapter, longitudinal digital observations of Sport for Youth's use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, organizational website and blog) also informed the interview schedules and facilitated the broader analysis.

Working at the intersection between action sport media and NGO communications, Sport for Youth is very proactive and efficient in their use of social media. Since the early days of the organization, Sport for Youth has invested in a well-designed website featuring regular updates, videos, photos and a variety of other media content. During an interview in 2011, the founder acknowledged that the Sport for Youth website has always been an important tool for garnering global support and recognition: “Even when the organization was very very basic … there was the [Sport for Youth] website that had photos on there that connected with people.” Continuing, he described the ability to “document and share” their work in Kabul with a global audience via the website and other visual media as “just as important as the activities [on the ground] … because not everybody can come and see with their own two eyes what we were doing.” In the contemporary context, social media campaigns play a key role in Sport for Youth's fundraising efforts such that there are two full-time communications staff at their headquarters in Berlin dedicated to producing and disseminating content via their organizational website and blog, and Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook profiles, with at least one local staff member at each of their sites focused on the role of communications and content production. Content from the local sites is sent to the HQ where images and text are ultimately selected, edited and posted by the Communication Manager. Sport for Youth has also partnered with various media producers to create online campaigns, short digital videos, and documentaries. Some of these have received international acclaim, including a short documentary that won a series of international film awards in 2020. Such media products have been highly successful in garnering audiences from the Global North, with the positive portrayals of Afghan girls doing action sports playing a central role.

Beyond Poverty Porn: “We don't Use Images of Our Students Looking Tragic”

Sport for Youth's media campaigns are firmly located in the recent turn to positive humanitarian communication strategies. Sport for Youth iconography has been particularly dominated by images of Afghan girls in headscarves and traditional clothing doing action sports. As Amanda, an international female staff member, notes: “we definitely do focus on the Afghan girls – they're [doing action sports], they're empowered, they're excited.” Another senior communications staff, suggested that despite their programs catering for boys and girls, the organizational communications continue to be “a bit heavier on the female content because we'll get more off it”, thus suggesting an explicit market awareness and the “effectiveness” of such images in a saturated humanitarian mediascape.

Both international and local Sport for Youth staff interviewed for this project were largely attuned to stereotypical representations used in development work that potentially “produce and sustain knowledge of the helpless cultural Other” (Darnell, 2010, p. 399). They challenged commonly held views of Afghan girls and women as victims, instead focusing on their potential for culturally specific forms of agency and reappropriation of action sports such that they have meaning in their own lives (see Thorpe & Chawansky, 2016). For example, Tracey (international staff) acknowledged the limits of commonly held Western views of Afghan girls sporting participation: “In fact, for many of them, their community is actually quite supportive, and their families can be very supportive too, particularly for our local female staff who are bringing in an income from their sporting activity.” Interestingly, another international female staff member, Emily, explained how Afghan girls participating in action sports are demonstrating agency by “making [these sports] their own”: “For them, [action sport] represents opportunity, fun and an ability to imagine a different future for themselves and others. It has nothing to do with the Western associations with [action sport] to do-it-yourself or anti-authoritarianism.” The founder also expressed caution of treating Sport for Youth participants as victims: “We encourage girls, we put more resources into getting girls into our programs, but we don't talk about them needing special attention or special treatment. This could lead them to think they are somehow victims.” Such an understanding and respect for Afghan girls' everyday agency is also implicit in their media representations and marketing efforts. As one of the leaders in the international communication team (Renee) states, “We are always focusing on portraying things positively, putting the kids first and their voices first,” with Andrea adding:

One of the most important policies around the media we produce is that we… don't want to use any images of our students looking tragic. We don't want to exploit them and make you [the reader] feel sorry for them to try to generate interest or revenue, which is what a lot of organisations do.

Similarly, Tina (international staff) noted that “[Sport for Youth] has guidelines for social media and media in general,” such that “we're always focusing on the positive aspects and never doing poverty porn style photographs.”

Sport for Youth clearly demonstrates a critical awareness of some of the market-driven and ethical considerations informing such photographs. It is the intersection of the ethical and market-driven considerations informing such photographs – who takes them and for what purposes; how such images are “read” by whom and with what effects – that we focus on in the subsequent parts of this chapter. In so doing, we are particularly interested in the ethical issues and power relations involved in social media portrayals of Afghan girls doing action sports in a context of neoliberalism and the increasing corporatization and branding of sporting NGOs.

The Power and Politics of Imagery of Afghan Girls Doing Action Sports

Since the early campaigns of Sport for Youth, imagery of young Afghan girls doing action sports has captured the imagination of audiences around the world. This was further reinforced by journalists who also sought out this particular angle in their stories: “the media requests that [Sport for Youth] gets are really focused on the female element though this is only one part of what we do with our programs” (Amanda). While the public and media fascination with Afghan girls doing action sports may make the telling of “other” organizational stories more difficult, Amanda acknowledges that Sport for Youth is explicitly aware of the marketing potential of such imagery: “We use the Afghan girl [action sport participants] as a hook to get the attention at [Sport for Youth] and then we try to communicate about the boys, and our programs in [Asia and Africa]. So, yeah, it's now become a hook … but that's marketing!” As this comment suggests, Sport for Youth used the unique case of Afghan girl action sport participants as a promising “poster” to represent all of their Global South projects, but there was a growing awareness among the media and marketing managers at the HQ that this may have been homogenizing their experiences, such that they were working to present more diverse representations (e.g., more images and stories of Afghan boys, and students and staff at the Cambodia and South African sites) even if they do not ignite the public imagination in quite the same way.

Recognizing the potency of Sport for Youth's images of Afghan girl action sport participants in the contemporary moment, the United Nations featured an image of three female Sport for Youth students standing on the top of a mini-ramp with arms folded, gazing with confidence at the camera, as part of the 2015 #sharehumanity campaign. While Sport for Youth acknowledges and embraces the “power of these images,” Amanda notes some organizational concerns when their images are used in such global campaigns: “It's so powerful and it's used down the line by millions of people, but by then it's lost its caption and sometimes its context. … we can't control who and why people are talking about these images…. And it's really important to not lose that messaging and not for it to be used in a negative sense.” The relation between NGOs and media is often compared to a “double-edged sword” (Dogra, 2007, p. 163). While NGOs do need additional media coverage for publicity, fundraising, and heightening their public profile, there is always the concern that media will sensationalize and oversimplify complex issues thereby loosening the NGOs' “control over the terms of public representation” (Deacon, 1999, p. 57). Such concerns seem particularly pertinent in the digital age where widespread image distribution can happen very rapidly with images being shared, interpreted, and reappropriated well beyond the realm of organizational control. In the era of Web 2.0, the power to represent the “Other” is further implicated in many layers of global and local politics, with possible (unintended) consequences for both the NGOs and those being represented in such campaigns.

It is also important to consider what makes these images (and associated media products, including documentaries and short videos) so powerful at this particular historical conjuncture. Arguably, these images sit at the intersection of hegemonic discourses of (1) Afghanistan as a site of ongoing conflict and female oppression; (2) action sports as activities dominated for many years by young, white men (see Beal, 1996); and (3) the rise of the Girl Effect and postfeminist media culture. The following comments from Amanda are insightful of this broader context within which such imagery have found traction:

These images [of Afghan girls doing action sports] were challenging so many stereotypes all in one. They're challenging the stereotype of the negativity towards Afghanistan, and towards a female's place in society there. But also from [an action sports] perspective… in western culture, often [action sports] are seen as a thing just for men… There are just so many double negatives going on [in these images]. Also, I think with so much going on in the news about Afghanistan that's negative, to see these positive images, which are so rare and for it to be something that is not expected of Afghan girls, it's very inspiring.

For decades, media from the Global North has repeatedly stressed the oppressive, patriarchal culture of Afghanistan (see Ahmed-Ghosh, 2003). Working to connect with audiences in the Global North in an Afghanistan saturated media context, Sport for Youth has been able to largely avoid commenting on the conditions in Afghanistan, instead presenting “positive” portrayals of Afghan girls while audiences in the Global North themselves fill in the background based on their own (often misunderstood or stereotypical) understandings of the lives of girls and women in Afghanistan. As an international female staff member commented:

I think those images of Afghan girls really challenge people's expectations of what an Afghan girl likes to do. You don't have to post a picture of someone sitting on the street looking down and out because people have this assumption in their head that that's what it is to be an Afghan woman. So when we have these images of them not just doing a sport or studying but also doing a sport that's traditionally very male dominated [in the global North], I think it really hits people because it's two things they never thought they would see together (Janet).

As the comments above suggest, it is the juxtaposition of stereotypes of two seemingly radically different cultural codes – women in Afghanistan and women in action sports – that seems to be so compelling to audiences in the Global North.

While this chapter does not focus empirically on the reactions of Global North audiences to these images, the digital observations of each of Sport for Youth's social media accounts reveal widespread (largely uncritical) celebration of images of Afghan girls doing action sports, particularly among young women and action sport participants. Observing the power of imagery associated with the Girl Effect, Koffman, Orgad, and Gill (2015) note that “the contrast between girls powerlessness and their potential is highlighted and used as a rhetorical device across policy documents, campaign materials, and media texts” (p. 16). Indeed, it is this “dual construction” of the Afghan action sports girl as “victim and agent of potential” that works so effectively as a rhetorical device for Sport for Youth: she is “at once a victim of oppressive patriarchal culture and a courageous, resilient agent refusing to be silenced, embodying the feisty, girl-power inflected mode of (post)feminist (post) humanitarianism” (Koffman et al., 2015, p. 161).

Other broader contextual factors also inform how audiences from the Global North are typically reading such images, including the current trendiness of action sports and the rise in visibility of “girl power.” Amanda suggests the timeliness of such images in a global context where action sports are increasingly fashionable, and how Afghan girls action sports participation in their own culturally specific attire offers a set of intriguing images:

…[action sports are] on trend, it's a fashion element as well isn't it? And when it is on trend, it's just going to pick up more and more exposure on this side of the world. They're like “wow, these girls are doing something that's so trendy on the streets of London, so trendy in LA, but they're doing it their own way as well.” They're wearing their authentic dress and they don't necessarily have to have all the best equipment or the best shoes, and they're… making it their own, basically, which is inspiring.

Continuing, she inadvertently acknowledges the rise of the Girl Effect and postfeminist discourses in the Global North as further informing how imagery of Afghan girls doing action sports are being received:

The visuals from Afghanistan and the girls [doing action sports] and the story there, it was so strong. I think it's this day and age as well. The past five years you can see the female empowerment element really rising. … I think within non-profits it's a very powerful area to be in. But also, just in day-to-day life; you know, life in the UK for a girl or America for a girl, it's really improved in terms of how society is representing female culture.

In the context of the Girl Effect and neoliberal approaches to development, many girls and women (and men) in the Global North are reading images of Afghan girls doing action sports as “very inspiring” and prompting many to support via “likes,” “shares,” heart and applause emojis, and one-off or longer term donations (e.g., “Love that there are projects like this for girls. It has more impact in the world than many think I guess. How can one support it?”, comment on the Sport for Youth Facebook page, 2018). Yet such representations are not necessarily prompting critical consideration of the broader power inequalities that are affecting the lives of Afghan women, or how audiences in the Global North might themselves be complicit in the “complex of unequal material relationships and processes which structure engagements between the global South and global North” (Wilson, 2015, p. 804). Moreover, to paraphrase Wilson (2015), while such images might encourage girls from the Global North to empathize with, or be “inspired” by, Afghan girls doing action sports, reading such images with a “selective appropriation of elements of feminist thinking” means that concepts of imperialism and race tend to be rendered “invisible” (p. 804).

In the context of postfeminist spectatorship and posthumanitarian communication discourses, Sport for Youth's positive images of Afghan girls doing action sports have been largely effective in evoking “reflexivity of the spectator” (Calkin, 2015, p. 655), and this is particularly the case for girls and women with an interest in sport, and especially action sports. For example, Amanda revealed how such images prompted her to reflect upon her own gendered experiences of action sports:

As a [participant] myself, I think seeing an Afghan girl [doing action sports]… it's like we are just doing the same activity. That's a really beautiful thing, and to know that they have that opportunity to do it. … Obviously in the developed world such as UK and America and across Europe, we haven't had to fight for equality in the same way that girls in Afghanistan have, but they're the inspiration. If they can do it, if they can [do action sports] and they can break stereotypes, then we can do anything as well. It's great to have that inspiration coming from them!

In such comments, we see (problematic) elements of SDP “positive” imagery of girls from the Global South being used as a development version of “fitspiration” – inspiring girls and women in the gobal North to pursue their own active pursuits with more vigor and enthusiasm, essentially “if she can do it (with so little), then so can I.” Our interviews further revealed the deeply affective responses such images had on women (particularly female action sport participants) from the Global North, prompting them to reflect upon their own lives before offering fleeting support (via “likes” and “shares”), donations to (ranging from one-off payments, to monthly donations, or the purchase of Sport for Youth branded clothing and products), or even volunteering for, the organization:

I first heard about [Sport for Youth] through a media article, I think it was right when the facility opened. … [It] had a picture of an Afghan girl and [the founder], and I thought that was totally amazing. Because growing up in [global North country] I was [an action sport participant] since I was 14, there was hardly any girls [doing it]. … It was just amazing to think that there are actually girls [doing action sports] in Afghanistan… Then I… thought about applying as a volunteer… (Renee).

I just started following [Sport for Youth] and getting very excited about the videos – especially the video of the girl [action sport participants] of Kabul video… I found it really moving. I was constantly sharing it, sharing other things with my colleagues at work, eventually it was apparent I'd probably rather be there than at my current job, so I applied… (Tracey).

Here we see interesting parallels with Koffman, Orgad, and Gill's (2015) “selfie humanitarianism” and Calkin's (2015) “post-feminist spectatorship.” According to Calkin (2015) post-feminist spectatorship “disengages with narratives of emotion or moral urgency, opting instead to articulate gender inequality issues in a way that allows the spectator to inspect herself and consider her own agency” and “dispenses with grand narratives of emotion that justify public action on the basis of universal ideals – gender justice – and instead appeals to individual judgments about empowerment, success and global gender relations” (p. 659). For a select few women in the Global North (such as Renee and Tracey), consuming such images evoked not only reflexivity but also action in their desire to volunteer for this organization. But as Koffman et al. (2015) remind us, in most cases this “selfie-gaze outlines a highly narcissistic form of caring for the suffering of others, one in which the spectator/donor remains center stage” (p. 162).

Organizational Considerations: An Evolving Media Landscape

In the previous section we suggested that postfeminist discourses in the Global North are informing the way audiences in this part of the world may come to know, understand, and engage with images of the Global South. Herein, we turn our attention to the intersection of the ethical and market-driven considerations informing such photographs – who takes them and for what purposes – as well as the unintended consequences of such images and the considerations of the NGO to protect their students in a quickly changing media landscape.

When Sport for Youth first started producing imagery associated with their programs with Afghan youth in 2007, the organization had a clear understanding of their intended audience. The organizational website and online videos were produced for audiences in the Global North for the purposes of raising awareness of their work and fundraising. While the Sport for Youth website offered Western consumers an unlimited flow of information – stories, photos, videos, and art (and commodities) – featuring and/or produced by Sport for Youth staff and participants, the media consumption by Afghan youth was carefully controlled. In an interview in 2011, the founder explained that while the marketing and branding of Sport for Youth was being used to “connect with Western audiences and Western youth and to raise money” for their projects in Afghanistan, it remained solely “an overseas activity.” Continuing, he critically reflected: “we can't pretend that we're not influencing them [program participants] culturally at all, but we're trying to minimize that because…if [the children] start taking what is seen as western cultural cues [home with them] they'll be stopped from coming here very fast.”

Over the next few years, however, Afghan youth increasingly gained access to social media via cheap smartphones, and thus the flow of information progressively became two-way. Observing such changes, the founder noted in a subsequent interview:

I think a big thing that has changed between when we last talked [2011] is just the increase in use of smart phones, and simply photography, and just sharing of images on the social media; compared to even a year ago, Facebook plays such a big role in Afghanistan right now! Even just taking a photo four years ago was a huge taboo somehow and now everybody is taking photos simply because everybody has a camera on their smart phone, and just about everybody has a smart phone.

Continuing, he clarified that even “street working kids … are buying themselves $40 smartphones brand new from China” (2015). An Afghan staff member supported such observations: “Social media is something very big between the young people and putting their pictures up. They go to school and then back home and they have nothing to do except check their Facebook.”

Arguably, the increasing access Afghan youth had to new media technologies was an important step in the democratization of digital knowledge. However, such changes also continue to have significant ethical implications for how SDP organizations represent their participants of SDP organizations and to whom. With Sport for Youth media and marketing materials no longer exclusively reaching audiences in the Global North, the organization recognized the need to take even greater care to ensure their participants are represented in ways that are culturally appropriate and that they feel are representative of their experiences. As Tina observed, “Half of our students are also our Facebook followers now, and they're liking every single thing that we post. So you want it [the photos and stories] to be something that they're excited to be a part of.” Simply put, with an increasingly two-way flow of such images and narratives, Sport for Youth became even more accountable to their participants, as well as participants' families and communities, in terms of how they are representing their programs and participants.

Focusing specifically on how UNICEF uses Instagram to frame policy contexts of girls' education, Anderson (2016) identifies some of the “ethical complexities of imaging girls in digital policy spaces” (p. 89). As Anderson (2016) notes, in contrast to old media – including print communication – “new media enables users to be active participants in what they see, hear, and share with others in digital spaces,” and this has important ethical implications for how organizations engage with new media (p. 88). Continuing, Anderson (2016) suggests that the ethics of digital representation must be at the fore when considering the ways in which organizations “select and disseminate images of protected and vulnerable populations – like girls” (p. 91). While some scholars are examining the ethics involved in organizational digital representations of girls from the Global South, few are considering the unintended risks of such portrayals for girls, their families and communities, and to the programs.

The Risks of Representing Afghan Girls Doing Sport

With the popularity of social media has come considerable academic and public concern about the “gendered risks” posed to girls and young women in digital spaces (Ringrose & Barajas, 2011; Toffoletti, Thorpe, Pavlidis, Olive, & Moran, 2021). Yet it is important to note that such concerns – verging on moral panic at times – have focused almost entirely on the possible risks for girls and young women in the Global North (e.g., online predators, cyber bullying, the unintended consequences of sexting, body image issues; Dobson, 2015; Hasinoff, 2013; Salter, 2016), with little critical consideration of the gendered risks digital technologies may pose to girls and young women from the Global South. 1 Moreover, most of the feminist scholarship critically examining the Girl Effect and shifts in humanitarian communications has been largely theoretical, focusing particularly on the contradictions and inequitable global power relations evident in such campaigns. Yet, our interviews with Afghan staff revealed that the combination of increasing access to social media among Afghan youth and “positive” representations of Afghan girls can have serious implications for the safety of female staff and participants and the programs more broadly. The following comments from an Afghan female staff member are revealing here:

When [Sport for Youth staff] post pictures of females, there is a chance that the boys will copy those pictures and then they're presented in a way like “I know this girl” and it gets very bad. That's one of the things. The other thing is some of the girls… don't like their pictures to be on Facebook.

Continuing, she highlighted the challenges for SDP organizations that have been using such images “effectively” (in terms of their ability to attract interest and fundraise) in their marketing and fundraising campaigns, but may not have (initially) considered the implications for some of their participants:

These images are good for [Sport for Youth], but sometimes I think it could create bad problems for the girls if they appear in the media. That's tricky! Also I can understand [Sport for Youth] too, that they want to share positive images but sometimes it could be difficult for the girls. If you go to the [Sport for Youth] website, you won't find any pictures of some of the Afghan female [Sport for Youth] staff … because they don't want to be shown.

During this interview, Holly prompted further to better understand the female Sport for Youth participants and staff concerns, to which she confirmed: “Oh yeah, they fear that their photos might be copied by the boys and then they would create problems for them. The boys photo-shop them [the images] and it can create a big problem.” While her own family are “very supportive … and so caring and loving,” she added that they have also warned her to “be aware of your pictures putting them on Facebook … that could create problems for you or that could make us look very bad in our community.” Another Afghan female staff member admitted that “my husband doesn't like my photo on Facebook,” and for many of their female students, “their brothers don't like their sisters on Facebook or television or any other media.” In response to a question regarding the fears Afghan girls and women have about their images appearing in social media, she explained “they fear of them getting in the wrong hands, yes … fears of the Taliban.” Similarly, a male Afghan staff member involved in media production for Sport for Youth explained:

They [female students] worry that these photos will be seen by the Taliban … yes, a small percentage of our students think like this! But there is also a traditional thing … like they're wondering … I'm [doing sport] here and when I become in the photo and then [Sport for Youth] posts it on Facebook and once my cousins or my relatives see me on social media or on the Internet, it will be something very bad for my family.

Continuing, he added “they're a bit scared of the camera,” before recalling a situation the previous year when a group of 50 new female “Back to School” students did not return the following day. When the community relations officer asked the families why they decided not to allow their daughters to return, she received the following response: “Oh, there was a boy doing photography and videoing them, so they're not going there.” As this example suggests, feminist critiques of Girl Effect–related communications would do well to pay further attention to the local contexts in which social media portrayals of girls (particularly portrayals of sport and education) may carry a unique set of risks and consequences.

Importantly, however, as Ahmad's (2020; Ahmad & Thorpe, 2020) research on Muslim sportswomen reveals, it is important to consider how Muslim women navigate social media spaces with careful consideration for their culture, ethnicity, and religion. To minimize potential risks, the Muslim sportswomen in Ahmad's (2020) study took care in using the digital affordances within particular platforms to be visible in the ways of their own choosing. Similarly, some of the Muslim women staff of Sport for Youth spoke of using an array of strategies to protect themselves online (i.e., using multiple accounts for friends and family, not posting photos of themselves) and to ensure their social media usage did not reflect badly on their families. It is thus important for feminist SDP scholars to also keep in mind that the girls and women participating in, and working for, such programs are not dupes to the risks, responsibilities, and opportunities in using social media. Any feminist media and communications research focused on SDP would do well to keep in mind how local girls and women may be actively engaging with online and organizational media content for their own purposes.

Organizational Responses to the Risks of Representation

In 2016, with the aim toward more sustainable and safer programs, the Afghanistan facilities were passed over to local staff with international staff relocating to the headquarters in a large European city and offering ongoing support to the local programs via daily communications and short-term visits. In the lead-up to this transition, local staff were trained in taking photographs and video content of the everyday programming and events. While local Afghan staff embraced the new opportunities to take ownership of creating media content, some admitted tensions and struggles negotiating two different sets of cultural expectations. For example, while the international staff at HQ were asking for particular images and stories (that they know “work” for the purposes of fundraising or reporting), the Afghan female students remained cautious and occasionally accused the local communications staff of “spying” or “doing business.” According to an Afghan male staff member, he often faces questions from female participants such as the following: “Why are you doing this [taking photos]? You're doing business on me?” Continuing, he admitted, “It's very challenging doing my job, especially doing photography or videoing or making documentaries. Like when I'm doing photos, we have 25 students in one class, and many of them will be covering their faces and hiding from the camera. I'm telling them don't worry, I'm not taping you.” As this comment suggests, local staff must work at the intersection of expectations from their international colleagues who are trying to create a particular set of images and narratives for the purposes of fundraising and local participants' cultural concerns about photography, surveillance and their personal safety.

Responding quickly to the changing media environment and associated risks, Sport for Youth took various measures to ensure participants and staff always have the option not to appear in photos: “We ask students who wants to be in the photograph, and who doesn't want to be. When a person doesn't want to be in a photograph we tell them to come to the front of the class so they won't be in the photograph. We are careful with those things” (male Afghan staff member). These concerns were explicitly written into the international Sport for Youth communications policy documents. In November 2016, an Afghan staff member further updated this document, adding 11 items to the section “Afghanistan Specific Guidelines” to ensure that all involved in media content production recognize the cultural complexities of photography in this context and are aware of the organizational guidelines that seek to minimize any risks to female participants. Examples of items from these guidelines include: “Do not take photos outside. Taking photos of students outside can create questions for parents”; “Do not take inappropriate photos of [sic] girls, e.g., up skirt, down blouse, short sleeves or without scarf. These photos will create problems for her in community and also will create problems for us”; and “Try to only take photos of girls over the age of 10.” During interviews, international and local Sport for Youth staff also described various strategies to try to minimize risks to the program, staff, and participants, including carefully controlling who has access to the Afghanistan facilities and the types of images and narratives that result from any media visits. At times of heightened risk, they do not allow international media visits and have tried to minimize media coverage in Afghanistan. For example, in response to the greatly heightened risk following US-troop withdrawal and Taliban takeover of all major Afghan cities in 2021 (including the three locations of Sport for Youth programs), the organization removed all references to their Afghan programs on their websites and social media (as well as closing their facilities until it was safe enough to reopen). Prior to 2021, local staff had also been encouraged and supported to develop on-the-ground strategies to implement Sport for Youth's broader policies in a locally specific and culturally appropriate manner. For example, one Afghan staff member described subtly placing red stickers outside classrooms in which female students had chosen not to be photographed. The purpose of the red sticker was to ensure that no photographs are accidently taken by any staff or visitors.

Local Representations of Afghan Girls

Concluding their visual analyses of the pictures that UNICEF uses and of the policy framing of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI), Kirk and Magno (2009) and Magno and Kirk (2008) argued for the importance of humanitarian and development organizations including girls in both image production and message dissemination (also see Anderson, 2016). A growing number of NGOs, and various SDP organizations, are increasingly providing opportunities for participants to document their own experiences, with some suggesting that these new forms of “communicative intervention” signal an important shift “from rescuer to facilitator of people's own representations of their own lives and to a polyphony of voices and versions that can engage all in the critical acts of interpretation and interruption” (Cornwall, 2016, p. 154). Sport for Youth provides opportunities for students to take photographs and produce videos and blogs for the organizational website. For example, as part of their curriculum across their Afghan sites, they host a yearly Global Citizens in Action course that involves the creation of various media items “for communication purposes.”

One example from this class was a film titled “Afghan Youth Leaders Fight Against Street Harassment” that was made available on YouTube. Produced by Sport for Youth students from the Mazar-y-Sharif facility, the film reveals the process of Afghan boys and girls working together to produce a short film that seeks to challenge gender-based harassment on the streets. Furthermore, in the Youth Leadership program, participants at the Kabul facility engage in communication and media training, which involves critical thinking about “knowing who your audience is,” “choosing who you are messaging to,” and “what the demand for that is” (male Afghan staff member). In an interview with one Afghan staff member involved in running these classes, he explained that while participants in this program “loved what international staff are doing” with media representations of Sport for Youth, they are focused on “being innovative in ways that match our national and cultural contexts.” When asked specifically about what participants in this program are taught about representing girls and women, he noted: “It is very important in Afghanistan to be looking after girls and women, and our culture. In class we explain that if you're taking photos of girls, you need to ask her, and you can't show her like in a fashion magazine as that's just not right in Afghanistan.” In this program, Youth Leaders also have opportunities to experiment with new media technologies, including Go Pro training sessions.

The opportunities for Sport for Youth participants and staff to be involved in their own narrative constructions, and the cultural considerations being given to representing Afghan girls and women, are to be applauded. However, it is also important to consider the (unintended) influence international staff and dominant organizational representations and narratives may have on the ways local participants and staff might choose to represent their own lives and experiences. As a male Afghan staff member admitted, “most of our students do focus on the stories of female staff and students… because their stories are very interesting and very important… they're very brave to teach here.” With further prompting about how such images and stories were received among local audiences, he admitted that there had been a change in recent years with Afghan people becoming more accepting of girls doing sport. Moreover, there is a small but growing group of young Afghan women who are “activists” and are “using social media to raise their voices.” 2 Just a few years ago, it was “very shocking to see girls doing sport, but now people are getting used to it.” In the Youth Leadership program, many Sport for Youth participants focus on producing content related to female students and staff because they are “really inspired by what the international staff have done, and they want to do that. They're also inspired by photos like the famous National Geographic image [of an Afghan girl with strikingly green eyes gazing at the camera],” but they are also encouraged in class to “think locally – what we need to do inside our own country and also for international audiences.”

In the process of international staff working with and training local staff, the local communications staff (and students) learned what types of images and narratives are most likely to be selected by those at HQ, thus shaping (even limiting) the representations they may ultimately create themselves. In so doing, the processes of NGOization are impacting the representations that local staff and participants imagine for themselves. Furthermore, the communications staff in Europe “set weekly content collection tasks” for local staff, which suggests some openness to locally specific forms of representation but always within a framework informed by the demands of the highly competitive development communications market. For example, one international staff member proclaimed:

We're really lucky with the staff being very understanding to us. They will be like “we will fulfil this brief,” because they're very devoted and they're a great bunch of workers and very talented content producers, and that's including photographers and even with words as well and video. … I think it's very much a mutual relationship where there's understanding on both points creatively, where they're putting their creativity in and they'll also fulfil what we need creatively, and then we put our creativity in. It's amazing how much they're learning, and we're learning at the same time (Amanda).

While some staff proclaimed a creative and productive relationship between communications staff in HQ and local sites, others were somewhat ambivalent, with one international staff member referring to local content producers as becoming “like our personal journalists who will interview the kids [and] collect that kind of data”.

In sum, while the current trend for humanitarian and development organizations to encourage participants to become involved in “image production and message dissemination” and the creation of opportunities for local staff and participants to tell their own narratives might seem like signs of positive change, we need to be aware of how previous and ongoing unequal power relations and interactions with international staff and media content may be limiting the content they feel they are able to create and/or the content that they have learned will ultimately be used (or not) by the organization for marketing and fundraising purposes. Such modes of representation are never free from broader power relations; even when images are captured by local staff and participants themselves, such representations remain heavily influenced (either purposefully or inadvertently) by discursive regimes originating from the Global North.

Final Thoughts and Future Directions

In this chapter, we engaged with recent feminist considerations of shifting humanitarian communication styles and strategies to critically discuss the ethics and risks of NGOs representing girls from the Global South in SDP campaigns. In the latter part of the chapter, we examined the case of the action sport-focused NGO, Sport for Youth* (pseudonym), and their social media portrayals of Afghan girls. In so doing, we suggest that postfeminist discourses of agency and empowerment – as well as neoliberal and colonial assumptions – are reproduced in the production of such imagery and highlighted some of the unintended risks (i.e., dangers from Taliban; family shame; and social and physical risks of having a daughter associated with sport, education, and/or an international NGO) of such portrayals for local female participants and their families. Recognizing such risks, the NGO promptly developed policies to protect their students and created opportunities for local staff and students to create and disseminate their own content.

To date, much of the feminist and post-humanitarian communication scholarship has focused on the representational strategies employed by aid and development campaigns with the aim of gaining attention, and ultimately funding, from international audiences and donors. However, more research is needed that considers how audiences in the Global North and South make meaning of such representations and the responses from different groups. It is also important to keep in mind that the power of representation is not simply a top-down or one-way process. In fact, local staff and participants also have some agency to inform, and even challenge, representational styles and strategies. For example, adopting a postcolonial feminist approach, Darnell and Hayhurst (2013) argue that targeted beneficiaries do have some “agency or ability to resist, change, or challenge the ways they participate and are represented in SDP programs” (p. 47), particularly through participatory approaches to research or monitoring and evaluation, visual representation such as photovoice or digital storytelling. Through such orientations, SDP participants may have the ability to capture their own photographs and images and tell their own stories. Darnell and Hayhurst further contend that sport may be a unique means through which targeted beneficiaries may emphasize identity and agency and where “actors in postcolonial spaces are increasingly using the Internet and new media to disseminate visual images and texts that they have created, so that the local is privileged, and resistance to stewardship is (potentially) mobilized” (Darnell & Hayhurst, 2013, p. 47).

While participatory approaches to visually representing SDP participants are an important intervention in the field (see Chapters 2 and 6), they are unlikely to serve as a panacea for addressing the inherent risks in posthumanitarian communication strategies as outlined in this chapter. Certainly, concerns abound related to the underlying power dynamics and potential for images created by participants to be (mis)appropriated for unintended purposes. In the “digital era,” it remains challenging to control and protect sensitive information, despite the best efforts of both action researchers and NGOs to abide by ethical agreements to do so. In this light, we suggest that future feminist research would do well to pay attention to the intersections of risk, participatory visual research methods, the ethics of representation (for both research and organizational purposes) and SDP programming.

In sum, those producing and consuming Girl Effect–inspired “positive” imagery of girls and women from the Global South participating in SDP programs would do well to question the motives and assumptions underpinning their engagement with such media: What are the dominant, hegemonic, intended readings of such imagery, produced by whom and for what purpose? What are the power relations inherent in such imagery? What oppositional readings might be possible if we locate such imagery in the power relations between the Global North and Global South, and the historical and political workings of international development?


Such risks gained global attention in July 2016 when Pakistani model, actress, women's rights activist and social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her brother after taunts from his friends that her social media usage was dishonoring his family.


Over the past decade there has been a rise of young Afghan women using social media to amplify their voices and for political purposes (Herman, 2015).