Letting everyone in on a little secret: The girl effect is also about...boys and men

It's no secret I'm a passionate, shout-it-from-the-rooftops advocate of the girl effect - the positive social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate. I wholeheartedly believe in the ripple effect that investments in adolescent girls have on everyone around them. I believe that girls have the power to completely reverse intergenerational cycles of poverty.

However, I've found that my commitment to the girl effect, and the Nike Foundation's exclusive investment in it, invariably raises an obvious question whenever I'm out in the world working to get girls on the global agenda or trying to get others to invest in the cause: So, what about boys?

It's a good question, and I want to be clear about the answer: The girl effect is about boys. It's about everyone.

The girl effect is about breaking the cycle of poverty and building a sustainable global economy. That can't possibly happen if 50 percent of the world's population in poverty is left out of the conversation; if they aren't seen as key to the solution.

In our work, it didn't take us long to realize that on the flip side of the girl equation, there is the equally critical set of actors in boys and men.

Girls will tell you: changing my life requires changing his mind. Men and boys - in roles as varied as peers, fathers, teachers - are often the gatekeepers who uphold barriers or opportunities for girls. The choices men and boys make often determine a girl's ability to avoid the trapdoors of early marriage, school drop-out or HIV infection, to name a few. With his support, she can avoid those traps and progress over time from home to primary school to secondary school to a productive livelihood.

What men and boys believe about their own roles and the roles of girls has the power to impact not only the future of those girls, but also the future of humanity.

When he steps in at critical moments, the impact can be profound. I was particularly moved by a 12-year-old girl I met in Ethiopia whose brother actually faked her kidnapping. He hid her until he was able to convince their parents that she shouldn't be married.

The greatest change for girls comes when the men and boys around them show themselves to be leaders. These men and boys are heroes for girls. We need their behavior to become the norm.

We have found that attitudes can shift and harmful norms can change over time - sometimes rapidly - if there is a logical, important reason for them to. And with such changes, girls and women - as well as boys and men - can enjoy new opportunities to realize their potential. So how do we do this? First, we have to get men and boys at the table and involved in creating solutions.

This week, the Nike Foundation is participating in "The Global Symposium on Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality." The symposium brings together more than 450 government, corporate, philanthropic and NGO leaders who are challenging seemingly rigid gender norms and engaging men and boys in reducing violence, and promoting sexual and reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

It is the world's first forum of its size and scope on the subject. Quite honestly, I find that remarkable. It's a conversation we should've been having years ago at this level.

Another thing I find astounding is that the vast majority of programs that target men and boys don't actually measure the impact of those programs on girls and women. How on earth are we to know if programs are doing more good than harm?

Its observations like these that have led us to look at the roles of men and boys across all of our investments, along with making a set of investments targeted specifically to men and boys.

These organizations are doing some really outstanding things.

The Family Violence Prevention Fund is taking its programs directly to boys on the cricket fields of India. Well-known coaches and players educate boys about treating girls with respect and build understanding that violence is wrong.

Tostan in Senegal engages whole villages in addressing expectations. Local theater troupes create plays about the roles of girls in society, while school teachers participate in discussion groups with students and inter-village councils meet to build consensus on issues like child marriage.

In Kenya, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can earn a merit badge to reward them for gender equitable behavior. PATH is testing the program's effectiveness, along with a similar program in China that's being carried out in vocational schools and workplaces.

Promundo, which is co-hosting the symposium, takes youth-led programs to the streets to change mindsets in Brazil. Comic books, a radio soap opera and peer educators encourage young people to think and act differently. They've had amazing success with increases in condom use and decreases in symptoms of sexually transmitted infections. Now we're looking to see what happens when these programs are delivered within school systems in Brazil and India.

These are just a few of the many organizations working with men and boys. Individually, they have the chance to create transformative change in their communities. Collectively, they have the power to change the world for the better, but only if they too remember that both sides of the equation have a part to play.

On a related note, check out Senator John Kerry's recent Washington Times commentary. The lead says it all: "Investing in the 'girl effect' can produce a big payoff."