Center for Environment & Population (CEP)

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Invest in Girls": Global Women Leaders' Message

Blog Series on the Women Deliver Conference: #2

By Allison Schaefer, CEP Intern

“The girls of today are the women of 2030.” With these emphatic words, Kathy Calvin of the United Nations Foundation set the stage for a scintillating dialogue and “business proposal” to invest in girls. Appropriately titled “Investing in Girls”, this panel discussion at Women Deliver featured some of the world’s most promising leaders. Maria Eitel, President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, Dr. Nafis Sadik Special Advisor to UN Secretary General, Reeta Roy, President and CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of World YWCA all provided their unique experience and expertise in girls’ development. The “sales pitch” these four inspiring leaders provided as to why we must invest our resources in girls is highly effective and compelling.

Maria Eitel spoke of the importance of focusing on the often forgotten age group of women, 9 to 19 years old. She asserted the common dangerous assumption that women’s studies pinpoint this age group, when in fact little data and focus exists on girls’ development during these critical years.

Lying within this age group, I found myself instantly compelled to learn about the importance of this demographic of the female population and what these girls can contribute to society. Ms. Eitel introduced the idea of “latent potential.” I myself have always been intrigued by latent potential, the idea that one has power, skills, and brilliance that is just waiting to be discovered. She feels that by investing our resources in and attention to adolescent girls, we can provide them with opportunities they had previously lacked to contribute to society artistically, scientifically, and technologically.

So how can we understand just how much these girls contribute to civil society? Ms. Eitel has embarked on a cutting-edge research project to find the answer. In order to bring the voices of young girls from around the world to Women Deliver, she has conducted research and communications with girls in seven countries. Through the Nike Foundation, she spoke directly with girls about their hopes, dreams, and concerns for the future. In her work, she identified a specific trend. Young girls, Ms. Eitel contends, are full of hope, aspiring to be doctors and leaders. However girls in their mid-teens see their future as barred by social barriers and their success hindered by violence and economic depression. But among all girls, there is a sense of urgency, dedication, and perseverance. She found that girls were determined to obtain a better education and better health services.

When I heard about Maria Eitel’s experience with young girls around the world, I was immediately reminded of my own experience abroad. Last year I traveled to Myanmar, a country struggling in both development and basic human rights. There, I had an amazing encounter with one young girl who embodied the spirit Maria talks about. We were traveling in a rural area of Myanmar and a young girl, around my age, approached initially trying to sell basic handicrafts. We looked at the bracelets she had made and purchased one, but our interactions did not end there. She walked with us as we toured the area, practicing her English with us and expressing a genuine interest in our background and desire to learn. This young woman had a profound impact on me, and demonstrated the vitality of young girls and their desire to become educated.

Dr. Nafis Sadik was the next to provide her insightful views on girls in the modern era. Dr. Sadik explained how she was greatly inspired and influenced by her parents growing up in Pakistan. In a highly conservative society where many girls did not attend school, she was lucky to have parents that pushed her to obtain her own education. She warned however that today many women lack the power to obtain such an education and even make decisions about their health. Women and girls lack independence in civil society. Dr. Sadik contended that the solution to this problem is changing the mindset of society. Though challenging, only by altering the way families see the role of women can we move forward and make progress in the rights of women.

In any investment, one must weigh opportunity costs and look at the benefits an investment will bring. Reeta Roy in this Women Deliver panel showed us the tangible benefits investing in women’s education can bring to society. She argued that by investing in young girls education, we can create economic growth and prosperity. When we think of education, images of textbooks and problem sets often come to mind. Ms. Roy reminded us that education for girls is more than just a road to employment, it should also teach life skills. I found Ms. Roy’s view on the value of education for young girls very powerful. She asserted that through education girls can “find their voice” and make a profound impact not only on their own lives, but the lives of others. She explained how organizations such as Africa-focused Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) are helping provide safe access to health services and viable education for young girls. Additionally, ELA clubs in Uganda (Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents) give girls a safe place to play and have fun as well as to obtain education. Organizations like Camfed and ELA are showing the world that investing in girls is very worthwhile.

The personal stories of young girls are often the most powerful motivation for change. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda uses her personal experiences and stories to show the important role girls play in our society. Ms. Gumbonzvanda believes girls are the true leaders of the future. She told the story of Mereso, a young girl who at age 13 was forced to marry a man who could be her grandfather. Mereso underwent extreme hardship in this child marriage and is now an activist for women. Nyaradazyi explains that barriers facing girls has prevented Mereso from even coming to the United States to share her experience. Mereso’s story demonstrates the need to protect the basic rights of women. She proclaimed that we need to transition from a state of vulnerability to leadership. Girls need empowerment to rise above the glass ceiling that is holding them back. Ms. Gumbonzvanda wisely warned, however, that words are not simply enough. We need action for girls, and we need it now.

At the conclusion of this Women Deliver panel, these four inspiring women explain to us that the next step is investing in girls. Ms. Eitel focused on the need to create a movement of activism for young girls. She argued that we haven’t really “delivered” on these issues yet, and we need to evolve society to promote the welfare of these girls. Ms. Gumbonzvanda feels the current status of girls is simply unacceptable, and that we need to recognize the intolerability of that status quo in order to move forward. Ms. Roy concluded saying that we must “align values and actions along a common vision.” She stressed the idea of collaboration and community involvement as key. And finally, Dr. Sadik closed by saying we need to work at all levels to promote change. In order to promote the rights of young girls, we must work not only at the top government levels, but within the community and through various partnerships. The road to progress is not easy, but is a road we must embark on.

Outside the conference hall is a tree. Not a pine tree, not an oak tree, but a tree of hope, dreams, and optimism. This tree resembles a wishing tree, with pieces of paper stating the dreams of young girls serving as “leaves.” This tree is a powerful declaration of the power of young girls in our society.

“We are at a unique moment in history,” Maria Eitel argued. Young women have great potential to provide numerous benefits to society. Now is the time to focus our attention on women and girls. Now is the time to invest in girls.

To see the full videos from the Women Deliver Conference see link attached

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