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When You Educate A Girl, Everything Changes

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"Your eyes, it's a day's work to look into them." American composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson wrote the line that came to me when I first saw Cindy, the girl whose photograph appears at the top of this week's column.

She lives in Zambia, and is about to go to school. I don't know what she is thinking looking back at the photographer, Caroline Daniel. But I can share what's going on inside of me. I'm imagining the rich and colorful journey that is just beginning. One that will change her life. Improve the health and fortunes of her family. Strengthen her community. And inspire other little girls to go to school, too.

You see, Cindy is part of a powerful new trend in development circles -- girls have moved from the wings to the main stage. All of a sudden, educating young females is seen as the best way to lift economic growth, encourage smaller families, and reduce three things: the spread of HIV/AIDS, along with child and maternal mortality.

Some pretty heavy hitters have added their voices to the chorus calling for a global investment in girls and women.

Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations has called the education of girls, "the single highest returning social investment in the world today."

Lawrence Summers, former US treasury secretary and chief economist of the World Bank wrote in a paper that, "hard statistical evaluations fairly consistently find that female education is the variable most highly correlated with improvements in social indicators."

And Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, produced a research report showing that Japan needs to "exploit" their "untapped resource" - women - if they want to prosper.

And a second that linked women's education in that country to its economic growth.

All of this makes Ann Cotton very happy. She's been beating the drum on this message for a long time. In 1993, she founded Camfed, an international organization dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls. Today, Camfed has helped more than half a million girls across Africa. Including Cindy. (Watch the Camfed videos. And find out how you can get involved.)

Goldman Sachs, one of Camfed's supporters, has launched their own initiative. Last year, the company announced that it would invest $100 million to help 10,000 women from developing countries gain access to business and entrepreneurial education. (And, yes, the 10,000 Women program continues, even in these uncertain financial times. Check it out.)

For Goldman Sachs, it was a philanthropic decision. But only in part -- the program also sends a strong signal that the bank wants to recruit and retain women. Here's what chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein told Caroline Daniel of the Financial Times. "We lose people to government, public service, and philanthropy more than to our competitors. People don't want to feel that they are merely earning a living."

Which makes Goldman Sachs New Radical Innovators. If you've been following this column, you know that New Radicals are people who put skills acquired in their careers to work on the world's greatest challenges (for more, please see archived articles []). While many people become New Radicals by changing careers, Innovators stay inside their field or organization and drive change from within.

Ann is a New Radical, of course. I asked which life events had prepared her to do this new work. She told me that she had worked in education in the UK, mostly with "children on the margins". There is also a deeply personal connection. Ann grew up in a working-class family in South Wales. "I could see the passion for education that grew out of really poor societies." And deeper still. Ann lost her second child, a daughter. "It was so profoundly overwhelming that my husband and I felt that the only thing one could do was to try to make good out of that loss."

There is so much more to this story than I can possibly share in one post, including Camfed's expansion into new countries across the African continent. But you can read about Ann and one of the first girls Camfed helped, Angeline (who is now executive director of their Zimbabwe office!), in a book that's being released on September 8th. "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" was written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

This week, as your children - or those of someone you know and love - head back to school, I hope you'll remember Cindy and her kaleidoscope eyes.

Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or by emailing me at julia (AT) wearethenewradicals (DOT) (COM).

Julia Moulden's new book is "We Are The New Radicals: A Manifesto for Reinventing Yourself and Saving the World." is also one of the most sought-after speakers on the lecture circuit.

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