"It’s a massive voice—not a single girl speaking alone."
The world is waking up to the fact that the greatest force for global change is growing up before our very eyes.
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. . . .