GLOBAL CHANGE STARTS WITH GIRLS (by Kathy CALVIN, President and CEO, United Nations Foundation)
A healthy, educated, empowered adolescent girl has the unique potential to break the cycle of poverty. While girls have the potential to change the world, in many places they often don’t have the chance. We can help end poverty by vastly ramping up our efforts to protect and empower adolescent girls.
We are just wrapping up Women’s History Month, which has generated a much-needed dialogue on the contributions of women to society, but an important piece of the conversation has been missing – the contributions of adolescent girls around the world.
Girl power is one of global development’s most potent weapons against poverty.
A healthy, educated, empowered adolescent girl has the unique potential to break the cycle of poverty. She is likely to have fewer and healthier children and earn higher wages to support her family and drive economic growth. All of this promotes more productive and stable communities and countries – enhancing global prosperity and security and benefiting us all.
But here’s the challenge: while girls have the potential to change the world, in many places they often don’t have the chance.
Millions of adolescent girls are forced to marry young, drop out of school, and carry the burden of household chores – depriving them of educational and economic opportunities. They are at risk of physical and sexual abuse. And they are often denied the right and tools to plan their families. An adolescent girl doesn’t always get to decide if and when she becomes pregnant – but a girl under 15 is five times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth complications than a woman in her 20s.
Once condemned to the shadows, these injustices are starting to get the attention they deserve. A growing movement – including the UN Foundation and its Girl Up campaign, the Nike Foundation, UN agencies, and others – has demanded a place for girls on the global agenda. Girls themselves have started demanding a seat at the table too. The result: the start of a global revolution to recognize the rights of girls and to realize their promise.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 provided a number of concrete goals for the international community to mobilize around, and we have made real progress in the last 15 years. This includes virtual parity between boys and girls in primary education and significant drops in child and maternal mortality.
“Girl power is one of global development’s most potent weapons against poverty.”
Policies are also beginning to catch up. In December, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution on ending female genital mutilation, and in March, the Commission on the Status of Women ended its annual session by adopting strongly agreed conclusions to prevent and end violence against girls and women.
Additionally, as part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to girls, President Obama recently signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes new provisions to make ending child marriage in developing countries an official foreign policy priority of the U.S. government.
All of this is evidence that the international community can achieve meaningful progress when we come together. So what still needs to be done to make sure girls everywhere are empowered?
First, we need better data about girls and whether and how development programs reach them.
Second, we need to take programs that work to scale and increase investments in girls.
Third, we have to overturn laws and policies that discriminate against girls and pass – and enforce – ones that protect their rights.
Next, we need to increase educational and economic opportunities for adolescent girls, especially in technology.
Another critical step we must take is ending child marriage. This effort must be coupled with a strong push to expand access to voluntary family planning information and services for girls. Ninety percent of first births for girls under 18 happen within marriage. As Maria Eitel of the Nike Foundation said last year, “This isn’t an issue of promiscuity. … If she’s married, she needs access to family planning.”
The fact is: all adolescent girls have the right to quality reproductive health information and care. This shouldn’t be treated as a controversial issue; it should be treated as a human rights issue.
The world is at a crossroads and what we do, or fail to do, has enormous consequences. The international community can stick with the status quo, which deprives millions of girls of their rights, and harms global health, economic growth, and the environment – or we can help end poverty by vastly ramping up our efforts to protect and empower adolescent girls. Right now, discussions are underway about what comes after the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. We must seize this opportunity to explicitly prioritize girls in the post-2015 framework.
If we want to drive progress in the world, we need to put girls in the driver’s seat. We know how to make that happen, but we need the collective will to do it. Each of us can speak up, raise awareness, support organizations, or do something to make girls’ causes our cause. And together with girls around the world, we can create a brighter future for all of us.
[Published in Partnership with Forbes] "