Want to Change the World? Let Girls Lead

By Kathy Calvin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation

"I want to serve the people. And I want every girl, every child, to be educated." These are the powerful words of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenage girl who was shot by the Taliban last year when returning home from school.

When it comes to addressing the needs and rights of adolescent girls worldwide, there is no better advocate than girls themselves.

This week, approximately 100 American girls have gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Girl Up Leadership Summit, where they are encouraging policymakers to prioritize adolescent girls in the global agenda. And next week, girls from around the world will come together in Russia as part of the G(irls)20 Summit to make recommendations to G20 leaders about how to empower girls. These girls are socially aware, globally engaged, and a force to be reckoned with!

The simple truth is that girls around the world know better than anyone what they need to lead safe, healthy, happy, and productive lives. The job for the rest of us is to listen to them and to create a world where every girl has the chance to realize her promise.

Why is this task so important? Because a healthy, educated, empowered adolescent girl has the unique potential to break the cycle of poverty.

A growing body of data and studies have shown that supporting girls and women - promoting their education, their health and safety, their right to plan their families, and more - correlates with healthier families, higher family incomes, economic development, and environmental sustainability. All of this promotes more productive and stable communities and countries, benefiting us all.

But here's the challenge: while girls have the potential to change the world, in many places they don't always get the chance.

Right now, millions of adolescent girls are forced to marry young, drop out of school, and carry the burden of household chores - depriving them of educational and economic opportunities. They are at risk of physical and sexual abuse. And they are often denied the right and tools to plan their families.

Once condemned to the shadows, these injustices are starting to get the attention they deserve. Girls around the world are demanding change, and a growing movement - including the UN Foundation, the Nike Foundation, UN agencies, and others - is joining them.

As this movement grows, we're seeing progress: more girls are in primary school than ever before; maternal and child deaths are no longer commonplace or acceptable in many countries where new practices are implemented; and thanks to the voices of American girls and many others, the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act included new provisions to make ending child marriage in developing countries an official foreign policy priority of the U.S. government.

While we're making progress, we have more work to do. We need to increase investments in girls, protect their rights, prioritize them on the global agenda, and importantly, listen to them, respond to their needs, and engage them in international development efforts.

As I've met girls around the world, it's become clear to me that they are the most powerful agents for change on the planet. So let's make sure they have the chance to unleash their potential. It's the right thing to do for girls and for the world.


Kathy Calvin is President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation. Her career has spanned work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She is a passionate advocate for multi-sector problem-solving, U.S. leadership on global issues, and the inclusion of women at all levels and in all sectors.