Girls are key to solving poverty

We cannot leave girls out of the equation - not even in a simple title for a motivating campaign such as Raise For Women. Why? Because adolescent girls are uniquely disadvantaged, yet they have the most potential to make the greatest change.

Maria Eitel is president of the Nike Foundation.

We cannot leave girls out of the equation - not even in a simple title for a motivating campaign such as Raise For Women. Why? Because adolescent girls are uniquely disadvantaged, yet they have the most potential to make the greatest change.

I don't say this casually. It comes from a vast collection of insights. For nine years the Nike Foundation, NoVo Foundation, UN Foundation and other girl champions have worked tirelessly to bring girls' issues to the forefront of the agenda and drive resources towards them. We do this because we recognise the potential an adolescent girl has to stop poverty before it starts.

Let's talk facts.

The cost of exclusion is high:

- Malawi loses the equivalent of 27 per cent of its annual GDP because girls become mothers before the age of 15. That is 10 percentage points more than the country's total combined industrial output contributes to its GDP.

The benefits of inclusion are far more rewarding:

- If every Ethiopian girl completed secondary school, half a billion dollars would be added to the country's national income every year. That's roughly the 2010 revenue from mobile advertising in the US.

As impressive as those numbers are, simple data is still not enough to effect change. We are still trying to convince the right people - the people with power and vision - to invest in girls.

The Millennium Development Goals agreed by all UN member states in 2000 have saved millions of lives, but a huge opportunity was missed by not listening to, or taking into account the potential of, adolescent girls. By driving the right resources to the 250 million of them living in poverty today, we can amplify the impact of all investments to end poverty and accelerate development.

If girls transition through adolescence with access to proper reproductive health advice, they will have babies when they are ready, space them so all remain healthy, and educate and provide for their children.

If nothing changes, there will be 142 million child marriages in developing countries between now and 2020. That's 142 million girls who are more likely to drop out of school, who will not fully realise the early years of investment in their education, and who will start having children while they're still children themselves - perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Adolescent girls are still at most risk of HIV/Aids - girls and young women between the ages of 15-24 are twice as likely to become infected than boys of the same age.

Girls are the farmers of the future. Today women make up more than 40 per cent of the labour force in agriculture. Giving them the same access as men to non-land resources such as fertilisers and seeds could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million.

Right now we have an opportunity to embed the transformational role of the girl in the next set of global development goals.

At the end of the month I am headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the 2013 Women Deliver Conference, to speak and to serve as an ambassador for adolescent girls. I will meet with government leaders, policy makers, healthcare professionals, NGO representatives, corporate leaders, and our partners to make the case for girls. We are asking that they be listened to, that their needs be addressed specifically and to ensure they are front and centre in the next development goals.

There are programmes designed for adolescent girls, but rarely do they address the ones who are most at risk, and they often are not applicable from one environment to the next. However, we can fix this problem by listening. We listen to the girls and then design the programme with the girls. Their insights will help create useful solutions that amplify their potential.

Sometimes the solution really is simple. Sometimes it transpires subtly, such as in a shift in perspective: yours, mine, leaders of the world, policy makers - or in the eyes of the girls themselves. So let's change the way we think. Let's change the way we make policies. Let's change the laws. Let's invest in girls. And by doing so, we can solve the most persistent development problem facing the world today.

Let's make a girl's success the world's success. It will be the best investment we ever make.

Maria Eitel is president and CEO of the Nike Foundation. This article was originally published on The Huffington Post Impact blog.

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