Why Invest in Girls?

Malala Yousafzai greets an excited crowd at the 2013 Social Good Summit in New York City. Photo credit: INSIDER IMAGES/Craig Warga for United Nations Foundation.

"My dream is to see every girl educated, in every country," said Malala Yousafzai, two weeks ago as I listened to her in an audience of bloggers, entrepreneurs and visionaries at the Social Good Summit in New York City. Earlier this year, 16-year old Malala became the youngest person, and only girl, ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On Friday, the winner will be announced.

Malala, who comes from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, has been an outspoken education activist since she was 11. When the Taliban took over Swat Valley in 2009, they issued an edict banning all girls from going to school. As others acquiesced and shut down in fear of the Taliban, Malala spoke out. Under a pseudonym, she wrote a blog about life under the Taliban and her efforts to continue her education, which was published by the BBC. She also appeared in a New York Times documentary where she spoke out boldy against the Taliban: "They cannot stop me. I will get my education -- if it is in home, school, or anyplace."

One year ago, in October of 2012, on her way home from school, the Taliban shot Malala point-blank in the head. Thankfully, she survived. What is remarkable is that instead of going into silence, Malala has become more outspoken and is using the attack to grow worldwide support for every girl's right to an education. "They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed," said Malala earlier this summer in a speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.

Malala Youfsafzai is showing the world the power and potential of a girl's voice and her conviction as a force for deep social change.

In tandem with the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, this Friday also marks the UN-initiated International Day of the Girl. In December 2011, the UN voted to designate October 11 as a day to promote girls' human rights, highlight gender inequalities that remain between girls and boys, and address the many forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe, including sex trafficking, child marriage, infanticide, genital mutilation, no choice in reproductive rights, no access to education, maternal death, rape, domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence.

Of course one day cannot address all of these atrocities, but it can serve as a gathering point for us to focus our energies and decide what we, individually and collectively, are going to do about it.

As education has been shown to be the most direct pathway to empowering a girl, the UN has designated this year's theme for the International Day of the Girl as "Innovating for Girls' Education." What does this mean?

It means that the United Nations is inviting UN agencies, UN member states, NGOs, the private sector and individuals who have the potential to innovate tools to advance girls' education to step right up. Some ideas include collaborating between school systems and the banking industry to facilitate secure and convenient pay delivery to female teachers and scholarship delivery to girls; improving public and private means of transportation for girls to get to school--from roads, buses, mopeds, bicycles to boats and canoes; and deploying mobile technology for teaching and learning to reach girls, especially in remote areas.

"Girls have the potential to change the world, but they often don't have the chance," says Kathy Calvin, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. According to UNICEF, one out of five girls in the developing world does not complete sixth grade. This not only has huge repercussions on each girl's individual life, but also on the life of her community and her nation, as the cycle of poverty gets repeated each time a girl is left behind.

You may think, but wait a minute, what can I do? I don't work for the United Nations. I don't work in a developing country. I'm just trying to make it through my own life on a daily basis and don't have the time or skills to develop new technology, develop a curriculum or build a road. That's where innovations like Catapult.org come in.

Catapult.org is a new crowdfunding platform that connects people from all over the world directly to organizations working on the frontlines for girls' and women's rights. A project of Women Deliver, Catapult.org is female empowerment at its best. You can choose girls' and women's projects closest to your heart, track the progress and experience the impact of your donation in real time.

Since launching in October 2012 (on the first International Day of the Girl), Catapult has already crowdfunded more than 230 projects in 81 countries. This includes using cell phones to supplement classroom lessons to accelerate literacy for Afghan women and girls; providing reproductive health programming, HIV education and schooling for girls in Jaipur, India; training over 200 women as teacher trainers and mentor in Nepal's poorest village; and providing leadership education and vocational skills to Haitian girls in safe spaces where they are free from violence and rape.

Even though there is a lot of talk about the wide-ranging benefits for everyone (families, communities, nations) when you invest in a girl, it turns out that adolescent girls receive just two cents of every development dollar, according to research done by The Girl Effect.

Catapult.org founder, Maz Kessler is doing her bit to change this. Since 2007, Maz, a technology designer has worked closely with Jill Sheffield, a distinguished global advocate for girls and women and President of Women Deliver. Last year, they launched Catapult.org to meet the need for increased funding for both girls and women in developing countries, as well as to build coalitions across the multi-generational girls and women's movement.

"When we started to think about building Catapult, we looked around the whole girls and women's space and what we saw were all of these amazing communicators and storytellers and campaigns, like Girls Not Brides, but there was no place that took that energy and translated it into action for the grassroots," Maz explained to me in an interview at the Social Good Summit.

She told me that they wanted people to know that if something happens in the world and they are furious about it and they want to make change, not only can they sign a petition, but they can also be part of solutions that are happening on the ground through crowdfunding.

Two weeks ago in New York as I spoke with and listened to many experts, innovators and policymakers on global development during the UN General Assembly, I heard echoes of what Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, stated so well a few years ago in her book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet. Her research showed her that societies that educate and invest in women and girls become "richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism," while the countries that limit women and girls' access to education, employment opportunities and political voice are "poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism."

This Friday Malala may be the first girl to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. If we continue to stand together and support the right of every girl to have access to education and to have a voice, my guess is that this is just the beginning of girls' recognition as leaders of peace.

Want to be a part of the growing movement to ensure women and girls basic equal and human rights? Find a project here at Catapult.org.

Tabby Biddle is a women's leadership expert and writer covering women's rights and the empowerment of women and girls. She was the recipient of a United Nations Foundation Global Issues Press Fellowship during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Learn more at tabbybiddle.com.