Let's Celebrate International Day of the Girl

Yemeni girls attend school on the first International Day of the Girl Child, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. The U.
Yemeni girls attend school on the first International Day of the Girl Child, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. The U.N. has declared October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child. Girls face double discrimination due to their gender and age, and are the most marginalized and discriminated group across the globe. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

This fall, children across the world set out for school after the summer holiday. They were the lucky ones. Millions of children do not have access to education, and of those the vast majority are girls. According to UNESCO, there are more than 75 million girls who are not enrolled in either primary or secondary education. For each of these girls and their families this means fewer options, fewer opportunities and diminished prosperity. But this lost potential isn't only an individual's or a family's concern. In fact, if more girls had access to quality education, it would help raise GDP, stabilize population growth, increase agricultural output and improve health outcomes -- for entire countries.

Educating girls is everyone's concern.

Recognizing this incredible value for girls, their families, their communities and for the whole world is why the United Nations inaugurated the International Day of the Girl. This October 11th, the UN will join millions of individuals and organizations in celebrating girls around the world and acting on equality.

But education isn't only about equality. Education isn't only about human rights. It's also about numbers. A girl with basic education is three times less likely to contract HIV. Her children are twice as likely to live past age 5 and 50 percent more likely to be immunized. With just one year more of primary education, her future wages increase 10 to 20 percent; an extra year of secondary school, 15 to 25 percent. And that really matters with 250,000,000 girls living in poverty. In fact, when just 10 percent more girls attend school, a whole country's GDP shoots up three percent. When female farmers are educated, crop yields rise.

Despite the rewards of sending girls to school, for far too many it is still not an option. How can we change that?

Make schools safer. An estimated 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or en route to school. We need to make sure girls and their bodies are respected by teachers and peers, a point Francoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, reiterated this past June to participants at the 2012 Dialogue for Action Africa, an international forum on African women's issues and women's NGOs hosted in Gabon by the Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women.

Provide sanitation facilities. One out of ten girls either drops out or skips school during menstruation because there are no private toilets or facilities.

Stop child marriages. Over 60 million girls are married before they turn 18. In Niger, nearly 40 percent of girls are married before they even turn 15. Many such child brides are forced to drop out of school. More than just disrupting education, however, child marriages can be deadly when girls become pregnant. In South Sudan, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than finish school.

Make it economically viable. When resources are tight, boys' education often becomes the priority. At my forum in June, Sarah Brown, President of Piggybankkids and the Global Patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, explained that "something as simple as providing a school lunch" or "a can of oil at the end of the month as a thank you for perfect attendance" can make it possible for families to send their daughters to school.

There are incredible organizations working to change these statistics and empower girls through education. In Kenya, Akili Dada mentors and offers full scholarships to high-achieving girls from underprivileged backgrounds. The Akilah Institute for Women in Rwanda provides young women with a college education, equipping them with job-market skills that have enabled its first class to graduate with 100 percent job placement. 10x10 is building a global campaign, working with partner organizations on the ground to demand and actualize equal education for girls and women. It is using a powerful tool: the stories of 10 girls from 10 different countries, collected in one feature film. Their slogan? Educate Girls, Change the World. I couldn't agree more.

For years as a public servant and First Lady of France, I worked alongside amazing organizations, working to advance legislation, fight domestic abuse, support immigrants and empower women and children. In 2009, I started my foundation because I felt compelled to lend my voice to NGOs and non-profits like these, whose work and determination so inspire me. It is my mission to use the Cecilia Attias Foundation as a platform to support and advocate for their work, to raise awareness, and help link them to the resources of governments and the private sector. That is what I can do, as a woman, a mother and a public figure -- for my own daughters, my granddaughter and girls around the world. But I only have one voice. Together with organizations, businesses, schools, governments and individuals, however, it can be so much louder. This is why International Day of the Girl is so important, and so exciting. It is an opportunity for all of us to stand up and demand equal education and, most importantly, to act.

So today, October 11th, please join me, and 10x10, and girls all over the world. Write on Facebook, Twitter and blogs about why educating girls is the smart thing to do. Find a local organization or public school where you can volunteer or mentor young students. Learn more about the Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women, one of the organizations I mentioned, or the nine others on 10x10act.org, and donate to help sponsor a girl's education.

While we celebrate International Day of the Girl, let's take action to make sure everyone -- governments, businesses, parents and teachers -- is aware of and ready to nurture the formidable talents and capacities and potential of girls.

The Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women is a New York City-based organization that supports non-profits dedicated to empowering women through education, health, economic and physical security. It currently works with nine non-profits around the world, and hosts international Dialogue for Action forums, bringing together leaders in media, government, and the business sector with NGOs and women social entrepreneurs. Please visit the CAFW at www.ceciliaattiasfoundation.org.