A new session unexpectedly stole the show at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Early on a Saturday morning—when most delegates would be expected to be sleeping—a panel called “The Girl Effect” played to a standing room-only crowd. A buzz circulated the packed room, which included heads of state, CEOs, international banks, and philanthropic leaders such as Melinda Gates and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus.
Why all the fuss? Lee Howell, Davos Annual Meeting Director, says girls were on the agenda for the first time in the meeting’s 39-year history because, as he puts it, “The field work, economic analysis, and experience all point to the powerful effect you’ll have if you invest in girls. People have to do more with less. If that’s the context we’re operating in, then the girl effect is an answer.”
Out of the Shadows
It’s a simple concept whose time has finally arrived. Study after study shows that girls—more than 600 million strong in the developing world—hold the key to their communities’ successful future when they’re schooled and mentored in leadership. When a girl in the developing world gets at least seven years of education, she will get married four years later and have 2.2 fewer children, breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. And an educated girl will apply 90% of her income back into her family, while a boy invests only 35%. Even one extra year of primary school boosts girls’ potential wages by as much as 20%, according to a 2002 study from the World Bank in Washington, DC.
Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that helping girls escape poverty is the key to healthy social and economic growth, only a meager 0.6% of development money goes to this demographic.
If it’s so logical, why hasn’t the world been investing in girls? According to Melinda Gates, “the issue wasn’t brought to the forefront before, so when NGOs or foundations or civil society were developing their programs, they just weren’t thinking that way. If you don’t think about this…you don’t build it into the program from the get-go. Part of it’s just a mind shift.”
“Girls are quite invisible,” says Tamara Kreinin, executive director of Women and Population at the UN Foundation in Washington, DC. “They have no political power. Often they’re not allowed to own anything, and at a young age, they become the little mamas, the ones who do the chores and keep the household going.” They are also held back by rampant poverty, forced marriages, domestic violence, and lack of reproductive health. “It’s critical that we begin to think about what we want for our own daughters, granddaughters, and nieces, and imagine that for all girls.”
Growing Our Girls
Although many organizations that help educate girls and build leadership skills have emerged since the 1990s, the movement is only now gaining real traction. A turning point hit when the Center for Global Development released a report last year called “Girls Count” that detailed the shocking inequities girls face in many areas of the world, and the impact this has on economies. Nonprofits and corporations alike took notice.
The UN Foundation partnered with the Nike Foundation and 30 other international organizations to establish the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, which aims to direct funds toward the development of young women. Then the Nike Foundation, along with the Buffett’s NoVo Foundation, launched an unprecedented $100-million Girl Effect initiative in 2008 to help adolescent girls in developing countries foster social and economic change among their families, communities, and nations. Program director of NoVo Foundation, Pamela Shifman, says that before settling on girls, the Buffetts undertook a deep quest to understand how their foundation could have the greatest impact.
“After many meetings and discussions they realized that they wanted to get to the root of domination, and that the most unheard person in the world is a girl.”
But perhaps the biggest megaphone of all for a new landscape for girls is the Nike Foundation and the NoVo Foundation’s short, online video called “The Girl Effect.” Since its inception last year, it has become a runaway viral hit that has branded the issue globally.[paging]
Girls at the Center of Success
“What’s been most successful are programs that look at all aspects of a girl’s life, health, education, and livelihood of her family and community,” says Kreinin of the UN Foundation. “You have to ask their families, ‘How can we work with you so you have the resources you need so this girl can go to school?’ To shift the culture, you have to open up the conversation.”
Case in point: When Ann Cotton, founder of CAMFED, an international group that educates and empowers young African girls, launched her program in rural Zimbabwe in the early ‘90s, she asked the chief of the village for permission to hold a community meeting about how best to integrate more girls into their schools. Hundreds of people walked for miles to attend. “The roadblock wasn’t a culture that is resistant to girls’ education,” says Cotton. “The reality was that most parents didn’t have the means to send all of their children to school. Most parents in rural Africa have not had an education, and they want that for their daughters very badly.” Cotton worked within the existing structures of teachers, police, and the judiciary to figure out how to make the journey to school less dangerous for girls and to work out ways for girls to be relieved of their agricultural chores in order to have the time to get an education. Now, nearly 650,000 girls in four African nations have benefited from CAMFED’s educational programs.
For Betty Makoni, founder of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, the girl empowerment issue is deeply personal. Makoni was raped and witnessed her father murder her mother when she was only 9-years-old. In 1999, Makoni started GCN, determined to help today’s girls avoid the horrors of her own childhood. “As a young girl, I saw injustices toward my mother,” says Makoni. “It was hard to see an adult woman in pain. I tried to tell her to break the silence, but she wouldn’t have it. I realized if I had economic opportunity, we could break the silence together.”
Makoni believes that if you reach girls early enough, they will grow up empowered and, unlike Makoni’s mother, will be able to speak out against abuse and injustice. “We provide the means for girls to work around the societal barriers they face,” she insists.
GCN, which coaches girls in leadership training, has worked with more than 30,000 girls over its decade of operation; there are currently 700 girls clubs across Zimbabwe, with chapters beginning to take form in other African nations.
“It’s a massive voice—not a single girl speaking alone,” says Makoni. And that voice has had the tone, pitch, and strength to lobby successfully for laws outlawing virginity testing, protecting girls from forced marriage, and making the rape of a young girl punishable by life in prison, making Zimbabwe one of the only African nations to explicitly protect girls against these common practices.
Passing the Torch
Successful girl-empowerment programs are now reaping what they’ve sown. The initial girls they invested in are now returning to their communities to teach, advocate for, and mentor other girls. “They are united by a background of rural poverty, and that experience gives them empathy, and that empathy gives them the impetus to act,” says Cotton. “They are a generation of activists who are tireless in what they will do for others.”
CAMFED alum Esnart Chulu, 18, of Mpika, Zambia, launched a preschool earlier this year for street children and orphans in her village that receives funding from Zambia’s Ministry of Education. The school currently has 65 children enrolled and won’t turn anyone away if their parents can’t afford the minimal fee. “If a child goes to preschool, she has a foundation to go on to the next grade and won’t be roaming around getting into trouble,” says Chulu. “They can make something of their lives.”
The Girl Child Network has now nurtured enough talent to allow Makoni to take a step back and allow some of her graduates to direct the course of its future. “We discovered if you don’t have girls in the hierarchy of the organization, it fails,” she explains. “If we don’t understand the language girls use, we don’t understand their challenges.”
One of the linchpins of the movement’s continued success lies with the concept of uniting girls’ voices into a collective power—akin to taking a classroom conversation to an international scale. Organizations like the Girls International Forum hold summits where girls around the world get together to share ideas about how to change public policy. “It’s important for them to see they’re part of a global society,” says Zora Radosevich, GIF’s executive director. “So often girls are isolated, and they want change to happen. It helps for them to talk to other girls. We teach them how to build a network of allies so they feel comfortable in a public policy forum.”
Other groups build those bonds virtually. New Moon Girl Media has created an online community where girls aged 8 to 12 can express themselves in a safe, creative, and positive space. “They share videos, poetry, articles, music, opinions, and they help each other with problems,” says New Moon founder Nancy Gruver. “It supports girls in staying true to who they are, and helping them to resist stereotypes and pressure to fit into someone else’s idea of who they should be.”
“Girls have got a lot of potential,” says Makoni. “How we bring that out is the key issue. When you begin to undo whatever negativity was instilled in them, you see they become a totally different species. They have so much power. It’s too late to make that happen if you reach a woman rather than a girl.” Adds Cotton: “The only way we can do that well is to listen respectively to girls themselves. And in learning from them, we can develop programs that work.”
As eyes increasingly turn to the real experts—girls themselves—the world is finding that girls have been ready for this revolution all along.
“I’ve always known that a girl possesses the key to her community’s development and an extraordinary power to effect social change,” says Sejal Hathi, age 17, founder and president of Girls Helping Girls, which has trained and mobilized over 5,000 girls from 15 nations. “Girls are the movers and shakers!”
At the close of that historic Davos session, World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called out to the audience. “Raise your hand,” she said, “if you now understand and believe in why we must invest in girls.” Everyone raised their hands. ●