Editor's Note: Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, works with key players in economic and social development to achieve the foundation's objective of contributing to poverty alleviation.
By Maria Eitel - Special to CNN
Investing in a girl stops poverty before it starts. That's the simple premise of the powerful force we call "The Girl Effect." This week, The Girl Effect is on the global stage at the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Bank Annual Meeting. Take it from World Bank President Robert Zoellick or former U.S. President Bill Clinton: Investing in girls is smart economics.
Girls are the invisible infrastructure of poverty. While her brothers go to school, ask 13-24 year girls in the developing world why they're not in education and 33 percent say it's because of household chores. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19. There are slated to be 100 million child brides by 2020. Seventy-five percent of 15-24 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV are girls.
When we get to girls in early adolescence - before they are married, pregnant, and HIV-positive - we invest in a solution for poverty, not a cure for its symptoms. Girls are the future mothers of every child born into poverty. Girls are integral to our food security, global health, peace and stability, economic growth - the whole gamut of investments, not just education.
A working paper just released by the World Bank, The Girl Effect Dividend, shows just how powerful girls are. Take Brazil. If young women's employment matched that of their male peers, they would add US$23 billion to Brazil's annual GDP. With nearly four million adolescent mothers annually, India loses US$383 billion in potential lifetime income.
Girls are unique change agents. Igniting her potential and transforming her world starts a ripple effect of change - for herself, her family, and her community. When a girl in the developing world receives seven years of education, she marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children. An extra year of secondary school increases her eventual wages 25 percent. Multiply that by the 250 million adolescent girls around the world living in poverty and you get the most powerful force for positive change on the planet.
So what do we do? It's dangerous to think that we reach girls by targeting other populations. Girls are not the same as women or their male peers. Girls' needs are unique. Programs and initiatives must specifically design for-and measure-impact on girls. This doesn't mean changing everything. It just takes including girls in what's already being done.
Every year the World Bank produces the World Development Report to focus on the biggest issue of our time in development. This year's is on Gender and Equality. Being distributed with the WDR is Smarter Economics: Investing in Girls. It calls out girl findings in the 2012 WDR and builds upon them. It highlights girls as a critical investment for our future.
Take Berhane Hewan, a program designed to assist unmarried girls by imparting the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to avoid child marriage. In Ethiopia, 50 percent of girls are married as teens. Berhane Hewan costs only $10 per girl. Girls in Berhane Hewan are 90 percent less likely to be married and three times more likely to be in school.
Or look at a girl named Juthika. In poor families, a daughter is married off as soon as possible, removed from the family balance sheet. In Ishwarpur, Bangladesh, Juthika is rewriting that equation through BRAC - a microfinance program that unleashes her potential and transforms her world. Juthika has ducks. She has a vegetable garden. She tutors schoolboys and embroiders handkerchiefs. Her skill and initiative earn Juthika US$37 dollars a month. She puts herself through school, along with her brother. She supports her father and her mother. The local elders confirm: Their village used to be poor. When they needed rice, they went into debt. Not anymore. In Ishwarpur, the girl effect has made the difference.
Girls need skills, assets, opportunities and connections to break the cycle of poverty. But inspiring and equipping her is only half the battle. We also need to:
1. Fund education and target transitions so every girl stays in school until age 16.
2. Work with community leaders so every girl has a safe space.
3. Prioritize girls in HIV prevention plans.
4. Fund girl-led movements and ensure their voices are heard.
5. Give girls identification so she can have access to financial services and vote when she reaches legal age.
6. Bring girls reproductive health programs that start before puberty.
We know what works. We now need the political will to do it. Girls need laws, governments, economic systems and social norms that protect her from harm and provide the opportunity to thrive. There is a great deal of work to do, but the global rewards could not be greater.