At CGI and Beyond, World Leaders Say Girls Are the Key to Progress

The Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, which just wrapped up, was a key moment in the movement to get girls on the global agenda and drive resources to them. Those organizations who have been doing this work for years were thrilled to see that we're finally beginning to penetrate the power circle with the issues of girls and women.

Let's dig into what happened. CGI has historically organized its agenda around the "tracks" of poverty, global health, education and climate change. This year, they reorganized into thematic areas including innovation, finance, infrastructure and human capital. In and of itself, this isn't news. The shift makes sense given the global economic reality of the moment.

The big news, however, is this: For the first time in its five-year history, CGI included a cross-cutting focus called "Investing in Girls and Women." That means that for every single session no matter what the topic, CGI's planners included solutions designed for girls and women to accelerate progress.

Now this isn't a total win. Anyone who's ever met me has probably heard me talk about how girls and women can't be lumped into the same category. That's one of the ways we make the mistake of thinking our efforts are reaching girls when they really aren't. That said, this is an enormous step in the right direction and there was a ton of momentum at CGI this week around both the importance of investing in girls and women for global prosperity.

The press seem to be taking note, with the Wall Street Journal referring to it as "a global tipping point," while Politics Daily remarked on "the start of something big." In this very forum, Sarah Brown (who, as the wife of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is decidedly not "press") writes about a "changing tide of opinion for girls and women."

It goes well beyond CGI too.

  • At an event called "Combating Violence Against Girls" hosted by the Netherlands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that girls and women could no longer be an afterthought. Instead they must be a foreign policy priority.
  • In President Obama's address to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, he referred to the Assembly's charter and reminded members of their commitment to reaffirm the "opportunity for women and girls to pursue their own potential."
  • At a UN high-level event on food security, World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke eloquently about the unique need for the initiative to carefully consider girls in upstream design to ensure they are part of the solution. She emphasized that girls are a unique population and we cannot assume they are included when we say "women".
  • Belinda Stronach, former member of Canadian Parliament and chair of the Belinda Stronach Foundation, wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail called "Investing in girls pays off in social and economic progress." And the Toronto Star brings us "How can you save the world? Start with her."
  • The nonprofit Plan USA released the third in its groundbreaking series of "Because I am a Girl" reports, with this one focused on "Girls in the Global Economy: Adding It All Up."

A big week indeed, but back to CGI.

Tuesday night featured a great dinner focused entirely on investing in girls and women. Ann Cotton, executive director of Camfed made an inspired speech that put the focus of the evening squarely on girls. Camfed was one of the Nike Foundation's first grantees and Ann was among the first to connect the concept of girls needing not just education but economic opportunity if they are to succeed. At the dinner she shared the story of the executive director of Camfed Zimbabwe, Angeline Mugwendere. Years ago, Angeline received support from Camfed to attend secondary school while her girlhood friends who did not have the same opportunity instead slept with sugar daddies in return for school fees and basic necessities. She said it wasn't foolishness, but rather the effect of exclusion that forced these girls into what ultimately proved to be life-threatening relationships.

We need more voices like Ann's to ensure that girls remain in the dialogue and the world understands the inextricable link between education and economics.

At our table, Judith Bruce of the Population Council talked about areas that need to be fixed:

There's almost a hard-wired resistance to do asset building for girls. I've analyzed many gender based violence programs and you're hard put to find programs that actually have girls at their center. They're spending time with the police or the judge or the teacher, but if you say 'OK, show me the girls whose assets you're building,' they can't. There's a tremendous bias to work with everybody but the girl.

President Clinton invited me to the stage at the start of the Wednesday morning plenary session on "Investing in Girls and Women" to introduce a group of commitments focused on the girl effect including Merck and Qiagen's partnership to deliver 3 million HPV vaccinations, Sustainable Health Enterprise's commitment to increase girls' school attendance by providing sanitary napkins to 1 million girls, AND Plan USA's efforts to train girls in Ghana in media production and journalism.

I also announced the Nike Foundation's commitment to "Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health" in partnership with the Gates Foundation and the Center for Global Development, and our investment in Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Nurse Institute - a revolutionary business model that puts girls at the center of health care solutions in Bangladesh.

Simply having a plenary session called "Girls and Women" with male CEOs and heads of multilateral organizations was a symbolic victory for girls actually being seen and considered on the global stage.

The heads of The World Bank, Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil, along with State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, the founder of Women for Women International and Edna Adan, a nurse/mid-wife from Somaliland and the founder of a maternity hospital there. Five years ago, it was generally assumed that CEOs and heads of institutions would not be interested in investing in girls. It is amazing to see how times have changed.

When Diane Sawyer, the session's moderator, asked World Bank president Robert Zoellick why the Bank would focus on adolescent girls, he said:

When times get tough, when food prices go up, the girls get taken out of school. If [the family] can't feed two kids, they'll feed the boy, not the girl. ... the Adolescent Girls Initiative ... keeps them in school, makes sure their education is connected to a job, gives them some mentoring, and what you can see is the benefits to not only their lives, but their children's lives.

Diane Sawyer reminded the audience that a woman is dying in childbirth every single minute around the globe. What wasn't discussed was that many of those "women" are actually girls. In fact, some 60-70,000 adolescent girls die in childbirth every year.

She asked Edna Adan what simple things could happen to have an impact. "When we talk about reproductive health," Adan said "it is affected by health, it is affected by nutrition, it is affected by the age at which she is married. ... These problems don't need complicated technologies to deal with them. They can be dealt with in the majority of cases by having skilled birth attendants and, of course, basic equipment and water to wash one's hands with."

When it comes to girl mothers, Adan touched on something really critical. Reproductive health is affected by the age at which she is married. Early marriage is a key driver of early childbirth in the developing world. Pregnant girls absolutely need girl-focused health services, but their younger sisters need an alternative to child marriage.

At another point in the session, Women for Women's Zainab Salbi hit on a critical point in speaking about Southern Sudan:

Girls get married there at the age of nine or eleven. They get cows for their dowry and they are stuck. Their parents need them to get married ... these cows are the means of survival. It's all about money. So you can talk to the parents as much as possible, particularly to the father to convince him not to do that ... or you can create a viable alternative for the parents to send their girls to school, not only primary school, but also secondary school so the girl can get a job and hopefully go to the university and that job is more important and is more income to the family than the cow ... you can create economic solutions that are an incentive for the family to change these traditions.

After the plenary, Kavita N. Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women commented on the world's tendency to see victims instead of powerful agents of change:

There is this constant sense that because they [girls and women] do so much with so little, that we actually don't need the resources. Zainab pointed out how little real money is actually allocated... there's this little underlying assumption that if you're giving it to women and girls, they really are these vulnerable victims who just can only be filled up with good things and that they actually are not these capable, strong, fearless leaders who actually have ideas about how to do things.

Later that day, Jennifer and Peter Buffett, co-chairs of the NoVo Foundation and our partners in this work, hosted an event to celebrate Ruchira Gupta's winning a Clinton Global Citizen award. Ruchira leads Apne Aap, a community-based initiative founded by women and girls in prostitution in India with a goal to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The organization provides access to education, income-generation training and legal protection to more than 10,000 vulnerable girls and women across India.

After learning of Ruchira's amazing efforts with Apne Aap, the NoVo Foundation nominated her for the Award...their call to CGI to honor Ruchira's efforts was well heeded. I'm truly inspired by Ruchira's work and think this is one organization that should be applauded again. Ruchira is a shining example of how we can solve issues at the source by investing in girls and women.

President Clinton also acknowledged Jennifer and Peter's work just before the plenary in an announcement of their $24 million commitment, in partnership with Women for Women International Founder and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to support the economic empowerment of over 100,000 girls and women in the next three years.

I wish I had been able to count the number of times I heard the phrase "girls and women" instead of "women and girls" this past week. This is a major shift in public consciousness. Even in a small way it may ensure that girls aren't lost in the discussion. Those reading this can do the same. You can help shift the global lexicon by putting girls first. It's an easy but unbelievably important thing to do for the world's girls.