The power of girls
The Nairobi slum of Kibera is a bad place to be a teen girl. But there is safety in numbers: These girls have started a 200-strong network of girls that protect each other from violence, HIV, pregnancy and prostitution. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
October 10th, 2011
02:30 PM ET

The power of girls

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

The Nobel Committee got it right when they awarded three incredible women the Nobel Peace Prize – H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman – "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work."

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recognizes more than the winners themselves. It recognizes the powerful force for positive change locked within half of our population. The Nobel Committee is joining the growing movement that sees female participation and voice as not only as a human rights issue; it is an economic, social and political issue. As Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel Committee, said, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” Jagland said it beautifully. There’s one critical word missing: girls.

We cannot achieve stability - economic growth and greater prosperity - if we leave behind half the young population. Tomorrow’s educated, confident, action-taking women are girls today. If we ignite their potential and transform their world, we will be seeing many more Johnson Sirleafs, Gbowees and Karmans in our near future.

We won’t get there unless we address the mighty barriers girls face. Nearly 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty. More young girls die in war than soldiers. According to the World Health Organization, nearly half of all sexual assaults are against girls under 15. The World Bank says that in Yemen, the restrictions for girls to attend school are related more to safety than social norms. When girls lack safe space and voice, their potential is stymied. We lose out on half our global population and it perpetuates instability and poverty.

A safe space for a girl and her friends to meet doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the basic building block for change. We’ve seen it work in Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, at the Binti Pamoja Center. Binti and its girl groups throughout Kibera give girls a safe space to form friendship and mentorships, to play, become financially literate and up-to-speed on HIV/AIDS. Binti girls are more confident than their peers; they complete school and practice safe sex.

When we get girls in adolescence - we invest in a solution for poverty, not a cure for its symptoms. Take it from Johnson Sirleaf herself who said, “empowering girls is a strategic investment.” According to the Equality Trust, societies with high female participation have lower corruption and greater stability. Not only that, they also have greater economic growth.

The Nobel Committee made a great leap in the recognition of women as strategic change agents. Let’s strive for a day when three women winning the Nobel is considered an ordinary turn of events. We’ll get there by doing something extraordinary for girls.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Maria Eitel.

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Topics: Africa • Aid • Women • Yemen • Youth

soundoff (One Response)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    "Nearly 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty". How about those under suppression – child brides and slaves?

    October 10, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply

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