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Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman

Posted: September 24, 2010 09:52 AM

This post was co-authored with Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women's World Banking.

As the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) concluded yesterday, we looked back over the annual event with some exhaustion and a bit of awe. The event attracted the largest number of people in its six year history: more than 1,000 attendees, 700 members of the the press, hundreds of CEOs, heads of state, NGO and foundation leaders, celebrities, and diplomats, and some 46,000 people following on the internet. Some of the leaders of CGI wondered whether the record attendance, even in these turbulent economic times, might have something to do with this year's enhanced focus on Girls and Women. As topic leaders for the Girls and Women track, such musings are music to our ears.

President Clinton opened the event by reminding the audience that improving the lives of women and girls is not a women's issue, it's a people issue. It impacts men as much as women, and therefore everyone must be equally committed to women's empowerment. He goaded the men in the audience to just "get on with it."

The meeting emphasized a number of themes:

-Today, if you are a head of state, the leader of a non-profit organization, or the CEO of a company, you must have a strategy focused on women and girls. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it makes strong strategic sense: countries are more prosperous and stable with empowered, educated women; companies will have healthier and more capable employees, more competitive suppliers and a wider customer base; and NGOs will achieve better results and impact.

-Change will not happen until women have access to technology, financial services, education, and greater opportunity to accumulate assets, including the right to own and inherit property.

-Adolescent girls are perhaps the most critical demographic in the world today. If you can keep them in school, delay the age of marriage and equip them with skills to be able to earn income and makes smart life decisions, they will have healthier families and put their whole communities on a positive trajectory. CGI showed the world premiere of the new Girl Effect, a powerful 60-second video that graphically illustrates how girls living in poverty are uniquely capable of creating a better future, but when they reach adolescence, they reach a transformative crossroads. All of our global challenges--including reducing poverty, promoting food security and ensuring environmental sustainability--cannot be achieved unless we can better support girls at that crossroads.

None of these takeaways is new. Indeed, they have been well known for years by people who work on girls' and women's issues. But CGI was a terrific forum to hammer home these themes to a new and broader audience. One CEO stopped us in the hallway to say "Wow, I didn't realize how women's lack of property rights around the world inhibits economic growth." Other leaders told us that the day was in some respects an epiphany--now they understand why women's empowerment is such a critical global issue of our day.

Of course, we are left wondering what will come of it all. CGI is ultimately a call to action. Its goal is to get governments, non-profits and the private sector to work together to confront the world's most pressing problems. Certainly, we applaud the new commitments that emerged from CGI 2010, such as:

-The Rural Development Institute (RDI), Nike Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed $6.5 million to strengthening land rights for poor, rural girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Land is one of the most important assets for the rural poor in developing countries. Securing land rights helps empower girls by helping reduce their vulnerability to poverty, food-insecurity, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDs, and the problems associated with early marriage.

-The MasterCard Foundation, the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), and Google committed $10.4 million to providing secondary, financial literacy, and ICT education in Ghana and Malawi for 270,000 adolescent girls. They are also launching an internship program to introduce entrepreneurship and job employment opportunities into rural areas. These programs will enable the beneficiaries to complete their schooling and link it with fruitful professional opportunities.

-Intel, Intel Foundation, 10x10, and Laufer Green Isaac committed nearly $11 million to delivering resources to adolescent girls in Haiti, South Asia, and Africa by creating and distributing a film and social action campaign that amplifies the positive results when governments, corporations, communities, and individuals invest in girls' education.

These are just a few of the impressive and ambitious commitments that emerged from CGI this year. We look forward to tracking their progress.

Isobel Coleman is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. She was co-leader of the Girls and Women Action Area at the 2010 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian is President and CEO of Women's World Banking (WWB), the world's largest network of microfinance institutions and banks. She was co-leader of the Girls and Women Action Area at the 2010 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.