International Day of the Girl: Doing Right by Girls Everywhere

Of the many days in 2012 I've been anticipating, this one stands above them all. Today is the first-ever United Nations International Day of the Girl, thanks to Plan International and CIDA. Eight years ago, when the "girl effect" was just an idea, the NoVo Foundation, the UN Foundation, and other early champions struggled to get any attention to girls' issues. We had two simple goals: get girls on the global agenda, and drive massive resources to them. Today conferences, meetings, and gatherings across the globe do have girls on the agenda, so this is a big moment for every individual and organization that has worked so hard to celebrate this day.

But in the same breath, I have to say it is a dangerous moment. Lately there has been so much attention to girls, but that ambitious goal, driving massive resources to them, is still a dream. Yes, small and important progress has been made, and we see adolescent girls in India, across Africa, and across the globe breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations.

The question is how we really reach all the 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty today. Our starting point has always been and will continue to be girls themselves. We all need to ask ourselves what we know and truly understand about adolescent girls, or indeed what we think we know. If we asked girls themselves, they would say, "You think you know me?"

Seems a little harsh, right? But after thousands of hours of listening, challenging, and exploring challenges with girls themselves in multiple countries over eight years, it is the response we hear. What they tell us is that programs we assume reach them don't. Things we think they want, believe, will do, or won't do aren't right; when and how we think they need resources isn't right, either. What we must do is start with programs that are designed with girls. They ask us to tell you, the people who design the programs for health, agriculture and food security, water, and economic opportunity that target them, to listen to their voices. Insights from girls will create solutions that will not harm them or waste their potential.

So what is working? In July I participated in the Family Planning Summit, where the UK government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and 150 public- and private-sector leaders came together to help expand access to contraception and related health services not just for women but, for the first time in history, for girls. Why? Because girls told us that when they are 9 or 12 or 16 years old, they cannot protect themselves from being married, and, if married, they cannot protect themselves with family planning. Traditionally, family planning is targeted at older women in their 20s and above, but in the 2 minutes it takes you to read this post, 52 adolescent girls will give birth, 90 percent of whom were child brides, and four of whom will die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. So we all listened to girls, and the commitments that were made at the Family Planning Summit marked the first time in history that the unique challenges faced by girls were addressed. Now we need to deliver for them.

When you put a girl at the center of change, she changes everything. This is the "girl effect." In the world today, there are an estimated 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty. The untapped potential of these 250 million girls is the most powerful force for positive change.

So to honor these girls today, do these simple things: Listen to them and design all programs with them in mind. Make them visible; don't assume that they are included in what you do. Make them visible. They want to be counted. We need to disaggregate data by sex and age so that we know what is really happening to these girls. And if the data don't exist, leave it blank so that we know when they are being made invisible. And finally, invest in their potential like we really mean it. That is how to honor these girls on their first International Day of the Girl.